Just before the long weekend, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia held his first press conference. Sitting alongside his deputy, Gen VK Singh (Retd), and a team of officials from the ministry, Scindia rolled out a 100-day plan for the aviation sector.
The minister had been speaking to Chief Ministers to push for land acquisition and other issues related to the airport infrastructure in a bid to increase air service and operational airports in the country.
A 100-day plan is not new. Many times new governments take to such optics to show how different they are from the previous regimes. In this case, it is challenging to walk the tightrope since the previous minister is part of the same regime and has been promoted in the cabinet rejig. The plan covers the time frame between August 30, 2021, to November 30, 2021.
It looks at 16 points -- four related to infrastructure, eight to reforms and four to policy. While the plan looks nice, the four linked to infrastructure are merely formalities but there is substance in the other ones.
The plan envisions the inauguration of the Kushinagar airport and the new terminal at Agartala, which is ready. Laying the foundation stone at the Jewar airport and expansion of the Dehradun terminal is part of the plan.
These have been accomplished already and there is little that the minister can do now. However, coupled with the state-owned Airports Authority of India (AAI), which has agreed to a combination of airports for privatisation, this is a leap forward.
Indian airports have been characterised by peculiar problems like having airside and terminal development without being in sync. Airports have smaller terminal buildings and larger apron space or the other way, leading to bottlenecking and the inability to handle additional traffic.
The 100-day plan lists out eight policy targets and could have done with just seven, since the drone policy is already out, before the 100-day target sets in.
The other points under the policy are the discussion on the Cape Town convention bill and the establishment of leasing companies in India at GIFT City. If the leasing business materialises, it could save a lot of foreign exchange for airlines in India. The minister also wants to talk to state governments about reducing VAT on ATF.
State-owned Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Academy (IGRUA) recorded the highest flying hours last year, with only 24 aircraft in service. While operations at IGRUA are strengthened, a new FTO (Flight Training Organisation) policy has already been rolled out.
This has led to interest by FTOs at eight airports in the country, with the first ones already starting work on infrastructure. This could potentially help reduce the cost of training for candidates. Like a few other points, the FTO was processed by the predecessor of Scindia.
A major thrust is being given to RCS - UDAN, a scheme that occasionally gets brickbats on the execution front. Five new airports will be operationalised. They are Keshor, Deoghar, Gondia, Sindhudurg and Kushinagar. Along with this, six new heliports will be operational -- with four in Himachal Pradesh and two in Uttarakhand.
Fifty new routes will be opened, with a majority of them in October. Of these, flyBig and Star Air will start eight new routes, while Alliance Air will start six and IndiGo and SpiceJet will start four each.
While the initial routes under UDAN stopped operations due to the folding up of airlines like Air Deccan and Air Odisha, current airlines have had their own troubles. SpiceJet has seen the maximum number of routes being terminated after starting operations, an analysis in this column showed in December last year.
While new routes come up, let us hope that they don’t come up at the cost of older ones. The ministry, though transparent in listing the routes which it wants to start, is always silent on the count of active routes or routes which stopped operations mid-way.
The four reforms being planned are Digi-Yatra, whose implementation started during pre-pandemic days but hasn't been completed so far. The e-GCA project under DGCA, in which online services are being envisioned as the way forward, has been going on for the last many years. The next phase will merely add more services to the list.
The new reform here is e-BCAS, in which certain services under the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security (BCAS) will be converted to an online service on the lines of e-GCA.
The last point pertains to the upgradation of the Air Sewa portal, which was launched during the last term of this government. Complaints and grievances are now shown on the dashboard of the Ministry of Civil Aviation’s website and passengers will be asked to explicitly close the complaint on satisfaction. There will also be an automatic escalation matrix within the airline company.
While many of the 16 points in the 100-day plan are mere reparations or extension of the prevailing ones, it does address infrastructure, RCS, privatisation of airports and ATF, among others, which were part of the top seven challenges listed for the minister by this column, on the day he took oath.
Either way, it is good to see a plan and one which will be tracked closely with a commitment to deliver by a certain date.