UDAN Takes-Off

The second round of bidding for UDAN has piqued the interest of airlines but operational status remains hazy

Aditya Kakkar

New Delhi: While the initial buoyancy of the civil aviation ministry’s flagship scheme, UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik) spoke of an emerging India, it subsequently failed to create a flutter in the Indian skies. The ministry, in a bid to bolster greater connectivity, relaxed the norms on August 24. Some of the relaxations include dilution of the exclusivity clause mandating that only one airline may fly on one route in the initial years and norms that restricted two airports in close proximity from participating in the bidding. Also, the focus will be on Northeast India and Kashmir, thus strengthening the possibility of development through mobility.

“Airlines have ordered 100 regional planes so second round will be even more interesting,” said aviation secretary R.N. Choubey on the sidelines of a press conference.  One such airline is IndiGo, which has signed a term sheet with France-based company ATR for 50 ATR 72-600 aircraft. ATR primarily focuses on below-90-seat regional aircrafts and the deal with IndiGo is worth USD 1.3 billion. The aircraft are expected to begin operations by the end of 2017.

President, IndiGo, Aditya Ghosh had earlier said in May 2017, “In support of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s UDAN vision, we are embarking on a journey to build a nation-wide regional network and connect cities that have not benefitted from the growth in Indian aviation. The ATRs low operating costs will help us build a large regional air travel network with reasonable fares. These aircraft will feature modern cabin interiors, thus making the flight a comfortable experience for our passengers. The ATR’s outstanding operational versatility, along with their capabilities to land in remote airports with limited infrastructure will help us manage our operations efficiently.”

Budget airline SpiceJet had also signed an initial pact for Bombardier aircraft during the Paris Air Show but it was only in June that they announced plans to purchase 50 Q400 turbopop aircraft worth USD 1.7 billion from Bombardier. Bombardier Commercial Aircraft president, Fred Cromer said that once finalised, the repeat order will increase the Q400 aircraft fleet in the fast-growing market in the Asia-Pacific region and launch the high-density 86-passenger model of the Q400 aircraft in India. This announcement immediately came after the airline signed a pact with Boeing for 40 737 planes.

“The airline currently operates 20 Q400 aircraft in a 78-seat configuration to domestic and international destinations. When concluded, this fleet expansion will provide SpiceJet the ability to grow profitably and leverage the robust demand forecast in the world’s fastest growing regional aviation market,” a press release by the company said.

UDAN was envisaged with a number of noble aims but the first round wasn’t the most confidence inspiring. For instance, Jet airlines did not participate in the first UDAN round, even though it is a regular on regional routes. It is actually the public sector carrier Air India and SpiceJet that have the most number of planes under this scheme. UDAN is essentially a Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) which enables travellers to fly inexpensively and also save time through direct flights between smaller cities. It is also a way to enable the emerging middle class to take their first flights, boosting both tourism and business connectivity. The scheme proposes that at least half the seats on every flight should have a fare cap of Rs 2,500 per seat per hour of flying. The lackadaisical attitude of the government can be gauged from the fact that while 128 routes were allotted to five airlines (SpiceJet, Air India, Turbo Megha, Air Deccan and Air Odisha) in the first round, only 16 have been operationalised till now.

Gwalior, Kadapa, Pondicherry, Porbandar, Bhatinda, Kandla, Nanded and Shimla were the eight under-served airports that have been connected in the first round. According to the civil aviation ministry, the un-served and under-served airports to be connected include Agra, Pathankot, Shillong, Bikaner, Ludhiana, Durgapur, Vidyanagar, Salem, Mysuru, Jamshedpur, Cooch Behar, Kullu, Bhavnagar, Jalgaon, Jamnagar, Kolhapur, Pantnagar, Diu, Nasik (Ozar), Raigarh and Mundra. While Kanpur, Jaisalmer, Adampur, Raurkela, Burnpur, Utkela, Jeypore, Jharsuguda, Bilaspur, Ambikapur, Jagdalpur, Mithapur, Neyveli and Solapur have airports that need to be upgraded to host flights.

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