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Aviation industry has many ‘complicated’ issues, solutions to which are not easy

You seldom come across ministers who are not just very clear in their thought process but also extremely defined in what their future course of action will be. A minister who is not full of false promises but aware of the ground realities, someone who does not shy away from calling matters ‘complicated’ rather than always appearing to be the only one with solutions, Shri Pusapati Ashok Gajapathi Raju, Union Civil Aviation Minister is indeed a refreshing change from his predecessors. In an exclusive and candid chat with TTJ, the honourable minister talks about the state of civil aviation in our country, the bottlenecks, the new aviation policy and the way forward. Excerpts.

Over the past 10 years, the Indian civil aviation sector grew by 14.2 per cent in terms of domestic passengers and 7.8 per cent in terms of air cargo (in CAGR – compound annual growth rate). In 2010-11 six major Indian carriers with around 400 aircraft catered to 143 million passengers, including 38 million passengers that originated abroad. In 2010-11, Indian airlines carried approximately 1.6 million tons of air cargo. Further growth of the aviation sector between 2011- 2013 is estimated at 15 per cent.

India’s civil aviation industry faced turbulent weather in 2014 even as two new airlines with foreign collaborators joined the five scheduled operators to trigger a price war that squeezed margins further, with falling fuel costs giving some respite in later months.
On the infrastructure front, data available with the Airports Authority of India (AAI) reveals that aircraft movement and passenger traffic is highly skewed in favour of the six privately-operated metro airports at New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nagpur and Kochi. As much as 54 per cent of the 1,603,023 aircraft movements registered across all operational airports in India took place at these six locations in 2014-15. Another 18 international airports managed by AAI recorded 31 per cent of flight movements. Of the 78-odd domestic airports managed around 40 are operational — 15 of these airports accounted for 5.6 per cent and the remaining a mere 4 per cent of overall aircraft movements last fiscal.The state-owned operator has 33 non-operational airports across the country at Kishangarh, Palanpur, Keshod, Jhansi, Lalitpur, Panna, Satna, Bilaspur, Jharsuguda, Chakulia, Khandwa, Jalgaon, Akola, Warangal, Nadirgul, Donakonda, Cuddapah, Vellore, Asansol, Malda, Balurghat, Jogbani, Raxaul, Muzzafarpur, Cooch Behar, Rupsi, Shella, Kamalpur, Khowai, Kailashahar, Lengpui, Passighat and Tezu.

The government has commenced work to develop no-frills airports at Kishangarh in Rajasthan, Jharsuguda in Odisha and Tezu in Arunachal Pradesh. Two more airports are being developed at Hubbali (earlier Hubli) and Belagavi (earlier Belgaum) in Karnataka. Apart from this, viability studies will be done to gauge commercial sustainability of setting up no-frills airports at another 45 locations identified by the earlier UPA regime.

The rationale behind the government’s decision to go slow on the no-frills programme and instead focus of upping utilisation of existing non-operational airports.

Aviation contributing to various sectors
When I went for the Amarnath Yatra last year, soon after it had reopened, I was mesmerised with the picturesque of 40 minutes helicopter ride. Pilgrimage in India has immense strength where aviation is concerned. While leisure is just starting to grow, adventure, unfortunately, is non-existent. Aviation is also very crucial for some states, such as Port Blair, which as of now has one hop-over connection from Delhi via Vizag twice a week. We are working on the logistics to improve connectivity to the state. The boats to Port Blair are slow and we need faster boats as there is no rail connectivity. Potential of that place is immense.

Restricted aviation at hilly terrains
There is no doubt that hilly terrains are tough to travel to. Shimla, for example, has a problem with the length and width of the runway. Aircraft pattern today have changed and we cannot take a risk where security is concerned. Dharamshala too has no refuelling facility and thus we are not able to use it. However, we are exploring the possibility of finding a place for storing fuel, which seems possible and in case that happens, operations to Dharamshala can be started.

Unused runways in abundant
Today there are 31 unused airports lying in India… our non-performing assets. The issue is that airlines today, in order to make economic sense are going for standardisation of aircraft so that they do not need different set of pilots, engineers or spare parts for different genre of aircraft. So the problem then comes with runways. Most of the runways and runway lengths we have today are unfit for flying the new aircraft.

Air India
Air India is a good airline with bad books and some amount of indiscipline. However, the airline has never let the country down and has infact always stood upfront in our times of need, the recent being the Yemen evacuation. Any economic activity with indiscipline cannot function. Their on time performance has also improved. Personally, I am hopeful for Air India’s future.
Unregulated airfares
Airfares world over are unregulated, including our country. There should be no reason for floors and caps to be put unnecessarily. All these are complicated matters with even more complicated solutions. The size of India is the reason for its potential. People today are becoming very time conscious and are thus opting for air as their mode of transport. It is sad to note that aviation in India has not got the desired growth due to various impediments, most of which, unfortunately, are self created. We plan to get rid of these issues soon. There are a lot of non-performing assets in the Indian aviation scenario, such as world-class airports lying vacant, airstrips lying unused and more.

A new Civil Aviation Policy
It is common knowledge that aviation in India is nowhere near its potential. You can put the blame on the economic infrastructure. But the bigger question is, how do we rise to fulfil our potential? Based on certain discussions, a draft paper was prepared and it was released recently. The idea was that the quality of decision depends heavily on the quality of information. Another perception is that all points have not been covered, and that certain things could have been put in a different way. So, a timeframe should be put on it. It will ensure that all the information that the stakeholders feel ought to have gone into the process of consultation does appear. This way, any decision that comes in becomes a conscious decision because governments are expected to act consciously, not unconsciously. So, that is the basic shift.

Extensive discussions are on for the Civil Aviation draft policy. Lots of ideas have immerged and we hope to get the final draft soon. However, one should realise that policies tend to get old after a point in time and should be reviewed every 3-4 years.

Way forward
Civil Aviation is a sector which has not seen any growth worth mentioning in the last two years. The fact that we have so many unutilised bilateral entitlements means no thinking had gone into it during allocations. We need to provide regional connectivity as well as allow our carriers to operate international (flights) and utilise unused bilateral entitlements. Apart from the 31 non-operational airports in the country (on maintenance of which, the AAI had spent over `34 crore in three years), there are 45 defence airports, 83 state government airports and five private air strips lying unused. That’s a lot of ‘unused’ inventory, which if put to good use, can lift the aviation scenario of our country. We probably need hubs in the country so that we can harness these things. Currently, we are giving a free hand to outsiders and restricting our players.

Box Matter
Ministry of Civil Aviation’s achievements during the first year of PM Narendra Modi led NDA government
Initiatives and policies undertaken by Ministry of Civil Aviation

(1) New civil aviation policy: Draft of the civil aviation policy was unveiled on November 10, and the finalisation of the policy is being undertaken after taking into account suggestions received on the draft. Main features of the policy are related to development of airports, rationalisation of the cost of ATF, development of cargo sector, institutional reforms, improvement in regional connectivity modernisations of air navigation system and other area.

(2) Safety rating by FAA, USA: FAA has restored India’s security ranking back to category-1
This will enable Indian carriers to expend their flights to US. This will lead to economic growth of the nation and also improve country’s image worldwide.

(3) Know your rights (KYR) portal: DGCA has launched KYR portal to provide information as a right of passengers in cases of delays, cancellation and denied boarding along with cases of lost, delayed, misplaced and damaged baggage. It includes the matters relating to booking, airfare components and refund of air tickets.
It serves as a grievance redressal mechanism. The information provides resulted special assistance to the passengers requiring i.e. passengers with reduced mobility or disability and senior citizens, expectant mothers, first time travellers, etc.
The information on availability of Grievance Redressal Mechanism under the relevant civil aviation requirements, names of Nodal officers and Appellate Authority of airline/airport operator along with their contact number and email address shall be shared with the public.

(4) Construction work to enhance connectivity:
a) Construction of terminals in Civil Enclave at Bikaner airport completed for 100 PAX inaugurated on June 6, 2014 by Hon’ble Minister of Civil Aviation
b) Construction of terminal building at Kadappa airport completed
c) MoU signed on July 30, 2014 between AAI and state Govt. Odisha for development of Jhasuguda Airport for A-320 operations
d) Construction of new airport terminal at Mohali with an investment of `452cr. Will be completed and will be ready for operations by May 2015
e) Construction of new airport terminals at Tirupati, Khujraho will be completed and ready for operations by May, 2015
f) Construction of new airport terminal at Vadodara will be ready for operations by December, 2015

(5) Bonding with the best: Air India joined Star Alliance on July 11, 2014. This was pending for over five years. With this development, AI passengers are offered more itinerary choices to cover 1,269 destinations in 193 countries around the world.
The induction of Air India will provide our passengers seamless connectivity to 1300 destinations served by 26 partner airlines and also give frequent fliers of Air India an opportunity to earn and burn miles of other partner carriers. It will also add premium class passengers to Air India’s traffic.
Air India implemented an ambitious customer service improvement plan within five months of joining the Star Alliance to match the highest standards of international airlines.

(6) Major Missions:
a) Air India made impactful sorties to evacuate Indians from Yemen and Nepal
b) Air India successfully evacuated 1361 Indian workers and 9 children from Iraq and Libiya in its six special flights from July 4 to August 18, 2014
c) Air India evacuated victims of the floods in J&K.
d) To integrate all allocations aviation sector, a concept paper for adoption of Internet of things has been prepared and circulated
e) The entire office building of the Ministry has now been Wi-fi enabled since July 27, 2014
f) Various airports have been identified for generation of solar energy for captive purpose. MoU signed with M/S Energy Corporation of India(SEC) on May 28 2014 for providing solar power plant at Ahmedabad, Guwahati, Calicut, Kolkata, Coimbatore, Ranchi, Patna, Rajkot, Allahabad, Vadodara, Trichy, Rajahmundry, Kadapa, Surat and Hubli Airports with solar power generation of 52 MW

(7) Air Freight Stations: One of the recent initiatives undertaken by the Ministry of Civil Aviation pertains to strengthening of Air Cargo Logistics infrastructure in the country. In that context, off-airport common user facility for handling International Air Cargo in the form of Air Freight stations initiative has been proposed. The policy guidelines on Air Freight station have been issued on October 28, 2014. The establishment of AFS will enhance the facilities to Cargo stakeholder.