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India looks at skies to relieve its transport system

The Indian aviation regulator says that the current tally of about 800 small aircraft, which includes little piston-engined planes, will expand by 1,000 within the next seven years. But these are still startlingly low numbers for a country of 1.2bn with more dollar billionaires than in the UK.

October 11, 2013 / 05:07 PM IST

Travelling in India provides a stark reminder of why business aviation should succeed in the country. Crowded, chaotic roads are the norm, as bullock carts, lightweight motorcycles and overloaded trucks miraculously manage to avoid each other - most of the time - while competing with cars for the same inadequate road space. Trains are also slow and even the process of buying tickets is made discouragingly difficult by the overgrown bureaucratic process in which India excels.


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With all those factors at work on the ground, travelling by air should be a no-brainer for the time-poor. But, as many aviation companies that have tried to push into India have discovered, there are substantial hurdles.


There are nearly 450 airports in the country, but only 100 are in use. Both the taxation and regulatory regimes make it difficult to buy and operate aircraft. And, where changes are being made, the government is more focused on commercial aviation than unscheduled operations - India is the ninth largest aviation market in the world by passenger numbers, with 121m domestic and 41m international passengers a year, and is expected to climb to third place within four years.


But despite all that, the sector is growing. Last year, there were about 165 business jets in India, making it second only to China in the Asia Pacific region for numbers of private jets. India's Directorate General of Civil Aviation says that there were 147 non-airline operators with 412 aircraft (including those business jets) last year - up from 40 operators and 117 aircraft 10 years before.


And there is some help coming from the government. It has said it will spend $14.65bn on airports and related infrastructure within the next three years, to include $1.5bn on airports away from the biggest cities - ones that could be especially useful to private flyers seeking to cut down on point-to-point journey times.


The Indian aviation regulator says that the current tally of about 800 small aircraft, which includes little piston-engined planes, will expand by 1,000 within the next seven years. But these are still startlingly low numbers for a country of 1.2bn with more dollar billionaires than in the UK.


Helicopters, though costly, are ideal for a country that has an under-developed infrastructure and too few airports. But there are only 289 on the DGCA register. Further down the aviation chain, there are just 62 gliders registered, and only 40 ultralights.


These figures add up to a picture of a lack of grassroots involvement with aviation that does not bode well for expansion of a sector that is usually populated by people with a real passion for flying. Cost is, of course, an issue for many, though there are certainly many with enough disposable income. And once again, the bureaucracy is a disincentive - as I found when trying to convert my European and US flying licences into Indian ones some years ago (I eventually gave up).


That could change. The Rajiv Gandhi National Aviation University, named after the assassinated prime minister who was an airline pilot before moving reluctantly into politics, will open its doors in the state of Uttar Pradesh next year to those seeking to become pilots, aircraft engineers and cabin crew.

The aim is for all flying schools across the country eventually to be affiliated to this government body. But one can only hope that this does not introduce more layers of discouraging bureaucracy to keep those people who should be aiming for the skies confined to the chaos on the ground.

first published: Oct 11, 2013 08:49 am

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