File image: Delhi airport
India started the 2021 summer schedule with 108 operational airports but the second coronavirus wave that has seen daily infections soar to record highs has pushed down the number even as efforts are on get more airports going.
In her budget speech of 2020, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman set aside money for 100 additional airports by 2024. While there are 495 airstrips in the country, adding another 100 is now looking increasingly difficult.
The Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS)—UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik)—is an ambitious aviation project of the Modi government, with Hawai Chappal in Hawai Jahaj as the central theme.
From the first phase to now, a lot has changed, though the theme has remained the same. While UDAN scheme has opened up places like Bareilly and Darbhanga, which are seeing good footfalls, major airports struggle to get traffic back after a countrywide lockdown in 2020 curtailed the movement of people.
The scheme also has routes like Hubli-Goa, a distance of 150 km that can be covered in less than four hours by road. Routes like these could well have been avoided and resources deployed judiciously on some other routes.
At some point, the scheme deviated from getting underserved or unserved towns or cities connected to busy airports.
The next phase of UDAN is on and this includes routes that were bid out but not operated due to issues like airlines not sustaining themselves. Deccan, Air Odisha and Zoom Air didn’t last long. Several of the routes were also with Jet Airways before the airline suspended operations.
Taxiing or a takeoff?
Various kinds of airports have been activated under UDAN. These include greenfield airports like Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh and Rajasthan’s Kishangarh. Airports like Salem in Tamil Nadu have been activated, so have airstrips lying unused for a long time in places such as Bilaspur in Chhattisgarh. Bareilly and Darbhanga airports are civil enclaves that have come up at Indian Air Force bases.
Except Salem, other airports needed time to begin operations. It was because the airfield needed to be relayed, a terminal had to be built or land be acquired for building a civil enclave.
Going by experience, it takes anywhere between a year to three to activate an airfield lying dormant. Three years from now is when the country goes to the polls. This phase of UDAN is the only window the government has to activate airfields before the 2024 general election.
Which airfields could get activated?
As many as 94 UDAN routes are being re-considered for bidding. There are 106 routes proposed by state governments and union territory administrations that are up for grabs, many of them in Uttar Pradesh.
Around 56 helicopter routes are being proposed but except Pawan Hans, no other operator seems keen. The list also had 86 seaplane routes. At present, only one is operational—between Ahmedabad and Statue of Unity in Kevadia and even that uses a wet-lease aircraft, which goes to the Maldives for maintenance.
Most of the new airports are just airstrips and will require significant work to make them suitable for ATR72-600, the smallest aircraft that is in use. These airstrips require a terminal, recarpeting of the runway or land for expansion.
The target of 100 new airports looks like a pipe dream. Seaplane routes also need a big push and with only two sectors operational now, that too seems a distant possibility, more so in the backdrop of the pandemic. All eyes then are on the helicopter routes, which will be operated by a company that is up for privatisation.
Apart from seaports and heliports, some of these airports can get operational early if the airlines opt for smaller aircraft. Alliance Air had signed an MoU for Dornier Do-228 aircraft but they are yet to be inducted into the fleet.
If the airport expansion can influence votes in 2024, then there will be a lot of activity in the airport infrastructure segment in the coming months.