New Pilots

The challenges facing India’s civil aviation sector

2016 05 06

*While the opportunities are immense, the vulnerability of our skies has also grown manifolds.

by Rajeev Satav

In 1994, the then Government of India repealed the Air Corporations Act, 1953 and replaced it with the Air Corporations (Transfer of Undertaking and Repeal) Act, 1994 thus enabling private companies to operate scheduled services at domestic locations. This was part of the broader liberalisation reforms that started in 1991.

Today, India has the fastest growing domestic aviation market in the world, as per the International Air Transport Association (IATA). India’s domestic air passenger demand grew by 28.1% (July 2015) as compared to the previous year. This growth is three times as compared to China’s (10.9%) growth and five times as compared to United States’ (5.9%) growth during the same period. Forecasted growth for India’s domestic traffic is expected to be around 15% for the current year.

By all means, India seems to be on a cusp of a civil aviation revolution. Aviation Industry in India holds around 69% of the total share of the airlines traffic in the region of South Asia. This time period, thus, is critical for the industry and requires serious governance and leadership to create global Indian institutions.

The finance minister in his budget speech talked about the Government’ intention of drawing up an action plan for revival of 160 unserved and underserved airports which can be revived at an indicative cost of Rs 50 crore to Rs 100 crore each. Nanded airport is one such airport which is in dire need of Central Government’s attention. Nanded is a major Sikh pilgrimage centre and home to the Sach Khand Huzur Sahib Gurdwara, the place where Guru Govind Singh’s ashes were buried. This is also one of the Five Takhts of Sikhism and therefore most important from a pilgrimage perspective. Visitors from across India and world over arrive here in large numbers all through the year. There is an urgent need to develop this airport and ensure connectivity at least through the national career, the Air India. The Rs 50 – Rs 100 crore required to make Nanded Airport operational is only a fraction of the cost of Maharashtra’s CM international air travels.

While the domestic demand for air travel has increased considerably in the last few years, the Government has done little to actually help it achieve its true potential. Government has not reduced the jet fuel prices in proportion to the fall in international crude oil prices. Services provided at all Indian airports except the major ones continue to be far below the global standards. The airport connectivity with the cities is extremely limited.

However, no government’s failure comes even close to its failure in revamping the country’s national carrier, the Air India. Air India continues to bleed losses to the tune of Rs. 2,636 crore in 2015-16 and Rs 5,859 crore in the year 2014-15. Government has once again been forced to inject a sum of Rs. 22,280 crore in March 2016 to keep the airlines afloat. So far, the Indian government has pumped in more than Rs 30,000 crore in the airline. As of December 2015, the 85-year-old airline’s debt stood at over Rs 50,000 crore. Adding to this, it has been steadily losing market share to rivals from the 35% share in 2007 to 16% in early 2016.

There was a time not too long ago when Air India set the global standard for customer service. Now, it seems to have fallen far behind its Middle Eastern and South Asian counterparts in terms of quality services and business excellence. Only about 2% of the Indian population currently travels by air. Airbus, the world’s second-largest aircraft-maker, believes India’s civil aviation industry will grow by over 9.5% in the next 20 years while US-headquartered Boeing expects a demand for 1,740 planes in India in the same time period. That’s an opportunity that Air India can’t afford to miss.

The expansion of India’s aviation sector also brings with itself a number of security challenges including prevention of terrorism. The world watched in horror how Brussels airport was attacked by suicide bombers on 22nd March 2016. We can’t allow any such incidents in India. In this context, a recent report by a department related to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Transport, Tourism and Culture raises deep concerns by suggesting that 27 functional airports in the country are protected by forces other than the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF). The report said it was “quite scary to know that the security of eight of our hyper-sensitive and 19 of our sensitive airports are not covered by the CISF that has now become the only specialised force for aviation security”. The report said that – “Explanations given to the committee for non-deployment of CISF at remaining airports were lack of funds”. In the present day world where the terrorists are always a step away from creating havoc and taking hundreds of innocent lives, the Government is best advised to not compromise with the security of Indian citizens and provide the CISF with necessary resources.

The last few years have seen a significant improvement in photography and drone technology. A number of countries around the world are trying to minimise the threats posed by drones by regulating the usage of drone technology. Recently, a person was captured with a small sized drone flying around the Prime Minister’s house. Repetition of such an incidence can’t be tolerated under any circumstances. To this effect, I have introduced a private member bill which aims to ensure that advancement in photography and drone technology doesn’t make our skies more vulnerable. The number of drones is only going to rise in future and there is an urgent need for the Government to bring a pre-emptive legislation to ensure the safety of our skies.

To summarise, triggered by the reforms that started almost 2 decades back, India’s civil aviation sector is ready to become one of the largest in the world. While the opportunities are immense, the vulnerability of our skies has also grown manifolds. The Government needs to come up with a comprehensive policy in the civil aviation sector which not only ensures that Indian civil aviation companies are able to become world leaders but also that they are able to offer safe and convenient travel to customers at competitive prices.

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