UDAN Scheme Will Breathe Life into Disused Airfields: Air Deccan Founder
UDAN Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) aims to breathe life into these 500-odd airfields over a period of time and put them on the aviation map.
(ATR) 72-500 turboprop aircraft. (Representative image. Credits: Getty)
When I look back at the days just before Air Deccan was founded, in 2003, nearly fifteen years ago, a few images come to my mind. Images of India’s transformation from being a nation with a billion mouths to feed to becoming a nation of a billion consumers; images of a nation with two government-run television channels to one whose countryside was dotted with shiny dish antennae. I had a bird's eye view of this wave of change from the cockpit of the charter helicopter service I used to run those days.
It was in this atmosphere of feverish positive change that the idea of Air Deccan came to me. Chandrababu Naidu, the then Chief Minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh, asked me to start a daily flight from Hyderabad to Vijayawada and Rajahmundry, instead of a one-off flight through helicopter charter service, which we were operating.
Several politicians and ministers of the country, who availed our charter service, began to ask why I wasn’t starting a regular service to tier III cities like Hubli and Belgaum or Kolhapur, or Dehradun.
However, the first clear cut thought of starting a low-cost airline came to me thousands of miles away from home. I was strolling around the lounge of the Phoenix airport in the US when I saw a plaque, announcing the airport handled 1,000 flights and 100,000 passengers a day.
There I was at an airport, in the middle of a desert, which handled more flights than all the airports in India put together. On the South-west (an American low-cost carrier) flight, I was seated next to a beefy man, chewing on a burger. He turned out to be a carpenter.
That moment was my epiphany, one that led to the birth of Air Deccan, and may I add, the low-cost aviation in India. I asked myself if a carpenter in the US can fly why he can’t fly in India.
Consider this: at that time, India’s carriers - Jet Airways, Sahara, and Indian Airlines - were running barely at 55% capacity, carrying a total of 13 million passengers a year. Yet, well over 16 million people travelled by trains every day. It did not take much to figure out this discrepancy. Most of these people could not afford to fly. And that was the dream of Air Deccan: to provide a low-cost service that would allow millions of middle-class folks, who travelled by train, to fly.
The crux of the idea was to connect the hitherto unconnected smaller cities where the winds of change was blowing at a pace never experienced before. People in villages, owing to the flood of television, were having the same aspirations of a better life for their children.
The rest, as they say, is history. We launched with one old used ATR aircraft on lease (no one believed in my dream or was ready to fund the airline). But once we were up and running, and caught the public imagination, we raised capital and managed to deploy 45 aircraft in 45 months, overtaking Indian Airlines in market share. It was a new India that was flying.
In four years, we were reaching 69 cities daily when some our larger competitors were operating flights to 40-odd cities. Of these 69 cities, close to 30 were first-time destinations - Dehradun, Gwalior, Kandla, Jamshedpur, Kullu, Shimla, Dharamshala, Pathankot, Surat, Bhavnagar, Hampi, Mysore and so forth.
For various reasons, many of those regional towns are now unconnected.
A revolution again!
India has more than 500 airstrips and airfields - some under disuse and disrepair, and many in good shape, scattered through the length and breadth of the country. They are owned either by the airport authority, or state governments or defence ministry or fall under the private category like the Jamshedpur airport, owned by Tata Steel.
UDAN Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) aims to breathe life into these 500-odd airfields over a period of time and put them on the aviation map. This is probably the most beneficial rural initiative by the government that will be transformative on a societal scale, improving the economic landscape of the regions.
India's air connectivity has been lopsided, creating skewed growth and imbalance. 90 percent of total air passengers are flying between the 8 large metros. And about 50 percent of all passengers, are accounted for between Mumbai and Delhi airports, creating a Bombay-Delhi economy. Air connectivity to regional and remote towns, deep within the bowels of the country, in the hinterland, in far-flung and backward areas, is a key to equitable growth.
This will not only ensure reforms percolate, and investments flow into the remote regions, generating employment, but knit the country together bringing them closer by subsuming geography by speedy air connectivity. In the light of this aforesaid imbalance, the impact of
UDAN initiative under the innovative and visionary Regional Connectivity Scheme on the nation's economy will be immense and far reaching.
Connectivity is key to growth; connectivity not only through print media, television, internet, but along with it, connectivity and linkages through roads, rails, shipping, and air transport.
If it is the vision of India to bring about development in the widest sense of the word, then air connectivity of passengers and cargo has to be integral to that vision as it will ensure that jobs and investments go to all regions. It is also the best recipe to prevent alienation of far-flung underdeveloped areas.
This bold initiative must be carried forward with zeal and persistence by the government, accompanied by ongoing reforms in the aviation sector, addressing issues of airport monopolies, which is counter-intuitive to the government's vision, including reforms of the various governmental agencies like the regulator DGCA which for example is understaffed, and is in a time warp, still working under the mother act Aircraft Rules of 1937. With all stakeholders coming together, we will soon realise the dream of every Indian to fly.
The writer is an entrepreneur and founder of Air Deccan.
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