Small is Smart

Focus on Regional Transport Aircraft will help provide the much-needed succour for the airline industry

Smruti D

In 2019, when Jet airways failed to remain afloat, India’s commercial airline fleet grew by 29 per cent. Commercial aircraft in that year rose to 669 from 520 in 2018. IndiGo inducted 53, the highest number of aircraft in that year. Vistara brought in 21 aircraft, GoAir-17, AirAsia India inducted eight, Air India and Alliance Air three and one respectively. SpiceJet, which inducted 46 aircraft, however, was the only airline to include six Bombardier Q400, a regional transport aircraft for flying to smaller cities under the regional connectivity scheme.

NAL Saras PT1N First Flight

In last one decade, demand in the smaller cities has grown as airline travel became accessible and affordable. Airports have come up in Tier-I and II cities, leading to an increase in passenger traffic.

In 2018, the data compiled by the Airports Authority of India (AAI) had shown that there was a significant rise in passenger traffic from Tier-II cities like Ranchi, Surat, Vijayawada, Varanasi and Bhubaneshwar. The growth rate was even higher in comparison with cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai.

In 2016, the government launched Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN), a Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) with the objective of making air travel affordable and developing air-travel infrastructure all over the country. The scheme was mainly intended to make a few unserved and underserved airports function. The data collected in April 2017, clearly marking the success of the programme, showed that seven of every 10 seats were sold in smaller cities. SpiceJet, which had started operating  its 78-seater Bombardier turboprop fleet in 2011 to Tier-I and Tier-II cities, faced huge losses until the RCS was launched.

However, in 2019, it was learnt that the scheme had faced turbulence in its operation. The Selected Airline Operator (SAO) had expressed their unwillingness to fly on most of the routes that were chalked out to connect smaller cities. This came after the airlines faced issues like low demand, poor infrastructure and geographical limitations in mountainous regions. Forty three of the 137 airports under the scheme are functional, which also meant that only few of the 232 routes under the RCS were operational. A report in Mint newspaper, had in relation with the scheme, suggested that airlines were struggling even in places where infrastructure was not an issue due to low demand.

This is a pertinent issue for most airlines as the Indian aviation industry continues to struggle with expenses. Here is where the smaller aircraft come in as they are cost-effective due to less fuel consumption. However, this is not the only solution to the precarious condition of Indian airlines. The central and state governments will need to step in and support the airlines by cutting taxes on Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF). Other measures are also needed to keep the airlines operational during this pandemic.

In January 2020, aviation secretary Pradeep Singh Kharola at Wings India in Bangalore said that the financial viability of airlines needed to be addressed urgently as it was proving to be a big challenge for the aviation sector in the country. He also urged all state governments to lower taxes charged on ATF to improve the financial condition of Indian airlines.

The well-being of airlines goes hand-in-hand with the progress of UDAN. For airlines to make profit with maximum number of trips it takes to smaller cities, there is a need for more Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA) or smaller aircraft to be inducted into its fleet as they have lower fuel consumption and limited number of seats as compared to bigger airlines.

India is one of the fastest growing aviation markets and according to the IATA, India and China will account for nearly half of air passenger growth over the next two decades. Before April 2019, India was one of the fastest growing domestic aviation markets in the world for five consecutive years. A report by Centre for Asia Pacific (CAPA), a Sydney-based aviation think tank, in March 2017, said that India was the third-largest buyer of passenger airlines in the world after the US and China. This also means that India is the highest importer as both China and the US manufacture civilian and military aircraft.

CAPA, in the same report, expressed that it was a worrying issue as the fleet was increasing rapidly but the “infrastructure development, skilled resources and aircraft financing” will need to develop at a faster pace than it has ever before.

However, it’s not the same with India as it has for the longest time been a net-importer of military and passenger airlines despite having had a manufacturing facility set up in 1940 as Hindustan Aircraft. Later in 1964 it came to be known as Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). At that time, only India and Japan had manufacturing facilities. But, surprisingly, India is the only country in the BRICS group that consists of three Asian countries including India which did not manufacture its own aircraft until now.


Need For RTA

As per the data by the IATA, air transport passengers could double to 8.2 billion by 2037 and India is shown to be leading in those numbers, surpassing China and the US to become a global aviation hub.

Due to different factors like competition among airlines and the growing demand from smaller cities, Indian airlines will have to start flying all over the country. While this may bring about economic progress in smaller cities and towns, there is a good chance that the airlines won’t always find flights to certain places financially viable.

For this, it will be best that Indian authorities develop Regional Transport Aircraft (RTA). Although the journey towards this has already begun keeping UDAN in mind, it is yet to pick pace. As RTAs are different than the usual low-cost airlines, the operators will not suffer the current losses that they incur when they fly small. The RTA offers limited numbers of seats for limited demand and these aircraft will take care of different demands in different places, other than metro cities.

As India stares into the future of aviation, it is clear that it needs additional fleet at its disposal. As per Boeing’s data, India will need around 2,400 aircraft by 2038 and that at least 85-90 per cent of these will be narrow-body aircraft. Airbus estimates it to be around 1,900 and at least a fifth of them would be wide-body aircraft. Ministry of civil aviation’s data suggests that the fleet strength will further increase to 2,359 by 2040.

Indian authorities have begun to understand how fast the Indian aviation sector is growing. Therefore, efforts have been made to produce RTAs in India. If the production of these aircraft is pursued well, India will not have to import at the rate it currently does.


Indian Efforts

In 2017, the central government decided to revive a three-decade old plan of building a 14-seater, seven-tonne passenger aircraft called SARAS PT-1N. The aircraft can be used for both, civil and military purposes. It can travel at 425 km/h and has a maximum flight time of five hours. It underwent preliminary tests at the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research at the National Aerospace Laboratories (CSIR-NAL) in Bangalore. The airline, which is an upgraded version of SARAS PT-2N completed its test flight in January 2018. SARAS PT-1N crashed in 2009, killing all three crew members. Now, HAL has taken up the production of this aircraft.

Soon after in 2019, CSIR-NAL undertook the development of SARAS Mk2 Light Transport Aircraft. It is a 19-seater and is being developed under CSIR-NAL. In March 2020, HAL and NAL signed an MoU to design, develop, produce and maintain SARAS MK II aircraft which can be used for military and civil purposes. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has committed to buy 15 of these.

In the same year, after starting production of Mk2, CSIR-NAL started planning the development of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), the 70-seater RTA, called RTA-70. This project was first introduced by then Prime Minister H D Deve Gowda in 1996 and has been on paper for over a decade. The aircraft will be 70-110 seater. In 2009, the development of this aircraft was undertaken by HAL and NAL, however, HAL announced in 2015 that they had decided to not pursue it further.

Two years ago, in 2018, when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was on a visit to India, Mahindra Aerospace and Canada’s Viking Air had “signed a Memorandum of Understanding to form a strategic alliance to support and take advantage of India’s growing regional air connectivity opportunities”. Under the alliance, the two companies had agreed to support each other’s non-competing aircraft business to boost market penetration in identified territories and provide multiple options based on customers’ requirements.

Viking produces Twin Otter Series 400, a 19-passenger, twin engine utility turboprop aircraft. The speciality of these aircraft is that they can operate from different surfaces including water. Mahindra Aerospace produces eight-seater utility piston aircraft known as Mahindra Airvan 8 and a 10-seat variation by the name Mahindra Airvan 10.


New Global Inventions

Bombardier, a Canadian manufacturer of jets, in February 2019 launched its new model of 50-seater jet, CRJ550 aircraft. They launched it in North America with United Airlines being the launch customer. In a press release, the company had stated that this model of aircraft was its first triple-class 50-seater aircraft in the world. The CRJ550 will have a maximum take-off weight of 29,500 kg. The seats are configured with 10 first class seats, 20, economy plus seats and 20 economy seats. The plane has huge closets and a walk-up bar for passengers for refreshments and inflight wi-fi. Currently, SpiceJet uses Bombardier Q400 with 78 seats.

ATR dominates the turboprop aircraft market. Jet Airways flew ATR-72 and Air Alliance flies ATR-42. The new ATR-600 series is designed for short-haul. The new ATR-600 series has latest, simplified, integrated LCD advanced functions, enhancing safety, improved handling for pilots with maintenance cost saving and weight reduction. “The ATR 72-600 benefits from the widest cabin in the turboprop market, with the new Armonia cabin, new ergonomic design for greater comfort, new seats and wider overhead bins with 30 per cent more roller bags stowage,” the official website stated.

ATR-42 600 STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing), a 50-seater aircraft, is an improved version of ATR-42. The ATR-42-600S has a larger rudder that will help in increased control of the aircraft at lower speed. “It will be able to symmetrically deploy its spoilers to improve braking efficiency on landing, and will come with an autobrake system, to ensure that the full braking power occurs immediately upon landing.”

Small is Smart

Sukhoi Superjet 100, Russian RTA has engine and airframe designed together to optimise performance. The first model of 95 seats was rolled out in September 2007 by the name Super-Jet 100-95. The SuperJet has maximum cruise speed of Mach 0.81 and maximum altitude of 12,500 m. The range of Superjet 100-95 is 3,279 km and 4,620 km in the variation SuperJet 100-95LR version. The variants of SuperJet share maximum similar features in structural design, system fits, avionics, landing gear and electrical and power systems.

The SuperJet 75 has a capacity of seating 78 passengers, if there is a requirement of two-classes, the company provides an alternative of eight first-class passenger seats and 62 seats in the main passenger cabin.

Embraer, a Brazilian aerospace conglomerate, has developed E190 aircraft. According to the Embraer website, “Filling the gap between ‘regional’ and ‘mainline’, E-Jets deliver excellent performance and operational efficiencies, both in air and on the ground”.

The optimised design of the jet is “built with lowest possible aircraft operating rate in order to carry the highest-revenue-generating payload.” The aircraft is fuel-efficient because it is light weight which means it is also cost-effective. The seat capacity that Embraer offers is different with different configurations. Typically, number of seats offered are from 96-114. Already in use in India is the Embraer-170 by Air Costa, a regional airline headquartered in Vijayawada.

Airlines within the country currently use different smaller airlines like Embraer E-170, Bombardier Q400, ATR-72 and ATR 42 and CRJ for domestic travel.

In India, travelling by air is considered a luxury even today. In 2017, SpiceJet CEO Ajay Singh in an interview with Rediff News had said that only two-three per cent of our population had access to flying. This statement sums up the situation and points to the need of truly democratising air transport. Huge investment and planning will have to be done to connect smaller cities to metros, and with each other. Airlines will have to reach every Indian so that it is understood air travel is not luxury but an efficient and time-saving mode of transport. Without this widespread reach, it is practically impossible for India to become a global aviation hub. For this, the first challenge is to keep the airlines afloat and save them from meeting the fate of Jet Airways. The second challenge is to effectively channelise the development of indigenous production of military jets and passenger aircraft including RTA. Research and & Development (R&D), encouragement of private sector participation and faster implementation are some factors that can begin to make India self-reliant in the aviation sector.


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