It was a memorable flight. Travelling from Bhopal to Bastar,
I found myself to be the only passenger after the plane took off from Raipur. There was another gentleman aboard, but he turned out to be an officer of Vayudoot, the public sector airlines.
On the return journey, the small plane circled Bilaspur airport, with cows grazing near the tarmac, and then flew to its next stop without landing, after it was informed that there were no passengers.
Another time, the unpressurised Dornier’s doors opened in mid-air.
Vayudoot was fun.
Vayudoot never had the ghost of a chance of making a profit.
It was started to bring air connectivity to remote towns. The governments keep pursuing that goal, tirelessly, one failed experiment following another, burning a hole in tax-payers’ pocket.
After liberalisation became the buzzword and skies were opened to private operators, the Madhya Pradesh Government started patronising a string of private companies with dubious aviation pedigrees but good political connections.
It has entered into all kind of sweetheart deals and agreements to subsidise their operation. The most favourite deal is the guarantee to buy a minimum number of seats on a flight. In effect, it means that the state exchequer pays for a certain number of seats in case the airline fails to get enough passengers.
The Government is, once again, trying to revive the aviation industry in the State. Recently it called a meeting of major airlines to discuss the issue of poor air connectivity at Bhopal. While Ahmedabad has 145 flights, Lucknow 75, Jaipur 65 and Patna 50, we have only nine flights.
Even neighbouring Indore is served by 48 flights. Often people prefer to drive 200 km to Indore to board a plane because of better connectivity and cheaper fare.
Worst connectivity among state capitals
Everyone agrees that Bhopal has probably the worst air connectivity among the major State capitals.
A citizens’ pressure group that boasts of a 45,000 members now plans a march to Bhopal airport on October 2, the Gandhi Jayanti day, to highlight its demand for better connectivity to Bhopal.
It is easy to call a meeting of aviation companies, but difficult to persuade them to start operation without working out its financial implications. Aviation companies would go where their business takes them, where they can maximise their profits.
Throughout the summer the airspace of Uttarakhand are chock-a-block with helicopters flying to Kedarnath, without any subsidy from the Government. One can see choppers landing at the shrine every 10 minutes during the peak season.
Airlines claim that they find Bhopal operation uneconomical. At one point of time, in fact, Bhopal had 22 flights. Most of them were withdrawn and diverted to more lucrative routes.
At the meeting with State Government officials, attended by airport officials and industry representatives, the airlines also complained that tax on aviation fuel was increased from 4 to 25 per cent last year.
How Government can help
That is where the State comes into picture. If it is indeed interested in improving air connectivity to Bhopal, instead of helping dubious companies by subsidising their operations, the Government should:
- Reduce tax on AFT. That can persuade aviation companies to park their planes overnight in the State and fill up their tanks here to take advantage of lower prices. Remember, fuel constitutes 40 percent of total cost of a running an airline.
- Make overnight parking at Bhopal and other airports in the State totally free and reduce landing charges. That can persuade airlines to shift some of their planes from the vastly crowded and expensive metro airports. Bhopal provides a huge parking space in the middle of the country. Its airport can utilise the idle capacity that, in any case, generates nil revenue.
- Seize the locational advantage and try to develop Bhopal as the hub of cargo planes, offering them free parking and discounted landing charges. It may have far-reaching consequences on the growth of industry in the region. If roads and railway lines can bring industry, so can cargo planes.
- At the same time, the Government should negotiate with and persuade the airlines to offer competitive prices. When a businessman opens a new shop, he offers discount to attract customers. Airlines have to provide cheap tickets. Once the traffic picks up, the economy of scale will work to their advantage.
The decision has to be, of course, taken at the political level. It should be easy for the BJP administration because it is ruling both New Delhi and Bhopal. It keeps harping on the development promise. Let it put its money where its mouth is.
The Government also knows that better air connectivity means more business and industries, in turn bringing more prosperity and cascading impact on development.
DB Post 29 September 2018