A higher demand for business and leisure travel has helped charter services, which see a new set of customers coming in.
A helicopter lands in a cloud of dust in the middle of a big ground, even as thousands of people wait expectantly for their leader to get out and address them.
It is a scene out of any 'mega rally' that dot elections in India. In 2020, though, this drama is missing in Bihar, which elects a new assembly later within a month. One of those who are suffering from the missed opportunity are the providers of chartered helicopters and jets that otherwise fly politicians from one rally to the other.
"The demand normally soars during any elections but this time around there has been a highly reduced demand because of the pandemic," says Rajan Mehra, CEO of Club One Air, a charter provider with a fleet of 10 aircraft.
The Centre has eased the cap on gathering for poll-bound states. But still, only up to 200 people - from earlier 100 - are allowed to attend a gathering. The Centre has allowed state governments to take a call on rallies. But given the emphasis on social distancing, as Bihar has nearly two lakh COVID-19 cases, rallies that see lakhs of people, will be absent this time.
This has changed things for the charter providers.
"We would normally have seen a considerable demand for Delhi-Patna movements but this year there have only been a trickle of requests," added Mehra, who earlier was the India head of Qatar Airways.
This is in stark contrast to what happened last year during the General Elections, when supply dried up and charter rates doubled to nearly Rs 4 lakh an hour. "There was not enough capacity to cater to the demand," recalls Harsh Vardhan Sharma, co-founder of Himalayan Heli Services Ltd. The company has a fleet of six helicopters.
While state elections are much smaller in scale, these do help charter service providers to utilise their capacity.
Bihar goes to elections on October 28, with the last phase getting over on November 7.
"Bihar is a large state. There would have been a good demand," Kanika Tekriwal, founder of private charter provider JetSetGo. "At the same time," she adds, "it is not to say that general aviation hasn't picked up after the lockdown. In fact, it is doing better than the commercial schedule aviation."
Both Mehra and Tekriwal said that their operations are back to pre-COVID-19 levels, thanks to a pick-up in business and leisure travel."Demand in general for charter aircraft has been increasing because of the obvious safety, security and social distancing that small private jets allow.
You travel with known people and crew. The crew are tested and the planes are sanitized," says Mehra.
It also helps, points out Tekriwal, that there are fewer touch points at a terminal of general aviation than the ones in the larger airports that operate scheduled flights.
JetSetGo, says Tekriwal, did higher business in September, compared to the same month last year.
The demand has picked up both for business and leisure and again both for domestic and international travel. While Goa and Udaipur are favoured destinations in India, Dubai, the UK and Germany are the most sought out overseas. Maldives, though, is the hot favourite of the season.
"We see demand also for UAE, where IPL is being held. Though spectators are not allowed, team owners and their friends and relatives have been traveling," said Mehra. He expects international travel to further open up once more countries permit visitors.
Many of the HNIs, who would otherwise fly with scheduled airlines, are now moving towards charter service. They make for as much as 55 percent of the demand for charter service providers.
Many of these are entrepreneurs running small or medium scale enterprises, or chief executives.
But there is a caveat, says Tekriwal. "This is not a demand that can sustain. At present, these customers are using charter service because of business or family emergencies. They may shift back to commercial airlines when things normalise," she adds.
That may explain why smaller aircraft are now preferred, and the hourly rates have come down. Operators say customers are price conscious, and many "negotiate and haggle over the rates," as one owner of a charter provider said.
This has put pressure on margins. Tekriwal agrees. "My cost has increased by up to 15 percent, because we need to follow SoPs. Even getting spare parts is becoming an issue. Earlier if I could source a spare part in a day, now it takes over a month," says Tekriwal.
Pilgrimage yet to take off
Some niche segments though are yet to take off, and that includes pilgrimage.
"Post-monsoon is a peak time for us. During normal times, 10 to 15 helicopters would have been busy. But not now," says Harsh Vardhan Sharma, of Himalayan Heli Services Ltd. The company provides shuttle services to pilgrims visiting holy spots such as Vaishno Devi, Amarnath and Kedarnath shrines.While rates are down by 20 percent, demand is just 10 percent of the pre-COVID-19 levels. "One of the main reasons is that trains haven't started yet. Trains are needed to connect people," says Sharma.