On 18th February 1911, a 23-year-old Frenchman Henri Pequet flew the first official airmail flight over the Yamuna River. This 10-kilometre flight between Prayagraj (then known as Allahabad) and Naini was a part of the Industrial and Agricultural Exhibition being held there and started India’s unique tryst with commercial aviation. 112 years hence, a lot of water has flown under the Yamuna.
Today, India is the third-largest domestic civil aviation market in the world after China and the United States. Domestic passengers in India more than doubled from 60 million in 2014 to 143 million in 2020 prior to Covid-19. There has also been a significant increase in international air passengers too from 23 million to 35 million. Flying is no longer looked upon as an elitist luxury but a necessary service. India’s civil aviation sector has not only democratised air travel by adding crores of first-time fliers but has also provided employment opportunities for engineers, trained technicians and airline service staff. Moreover, the innovation unleashed in the civil aviation sector has made it central to a ‘Whole of Government’ approach.
Many private airlines have attempted to attract India’s large middle class into becoming commercial air travellers by offering no-frills, cost-effective services. Central to this strategy was to make flight operations to Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities commercially viable. To accelerate this, in 2017, the Government of India approved a budget of Rs. 4,500 crore for the revival of existing unserved and underserved airports and airstrips through the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS). Since then, UDAN – Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik – has expedited connectivity to non-metros and hastened the integration of Tier-2 cities into the commercial supply chain for goods and services. Left to private enterprise alone, connectivity to Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities in India would have taken a very long time.
Today approximately 475 UDAN routes involving 73 airports including nine heliports and two water aerodromes have been operationalised across the country. In these, about 75 routes, that is more than 15%, connect the Northeast where terrain and other challenges require a robust air network. Since its inception over 1.14 crore passengers have travelled in more than 2.16 lakh UDAN flights and Rs. 2,300 crore has been paid to selected airlines by the Government as a part of the Viability Gap Funding. As a result, the number of operational airports in India has almost doubled from 74 to 147 in the last 8 years.
A job generator
Indian flight operators have a fleet size of approximately 750 aircraft and this constitutes less than 3% of the global fleet size of approximately 27,500 aircraft. As flight operations in India continue to grow, the fleet size is expected to increase rapidly. To keep the aircrafts airworthy, regular maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) is required. MRO work includes the maintenance of engines, airframe and other elements with airframes being the most labour intensive. The growth in the country’s fleet size is positively correlated with the growth in MRO related work. As per industry estimates, the market size of the MRO sector in India stood at around USD 2 billion, catering to 15% of our domestic MRO work and 85% of the MRO work is done abroad. The availability of a strong pool of English-speaking engineers at affordable rates gives India a natural advantage of increasing its share of MRO related work. To capitalise on this, the Government of India issued new MRO Guidelines to encourage MRO organisations and OEMs to set up workshops in India. The steps taken towards making India a global hub of MRO includes 100% Foreign Direct Investment permitted via automatic route for MRO, a liberalised policy for borrowing and lending in foreign currency and Indian currency on competitive terms for MROs, reduction of GST on MRO from 18% to 5% with full Input Tax Credit. As Indian fleet size grows the need for flying staff including commercial pilots, transport pilots and other pilot licences would further increase.
At 1,165 commercial pilot licences, 2022 saw the largest number of Commercial Pilot licenses issued over the last decade. The total licences issued including airline pilots, type ratings and others came close to 10,000. The need for pilots has also led to an increase in Flight Training organisations (FTOs). Currently India has 35 approved FTOs with 53 bases in the country and an additional 10 are on the anvil. Similarly, the number of Air Traffic Controllers have increased from a little over 2,000 in 2012 to close to 4,000 in 2022.
Last year, the Government issued guidelines for Production Linked Incentives (PLI) for drones with an outlay of Rs. 120 crores over a 3-year period. The target segment contains drones and drone components such as airframe, propulsion systems, power systems, communication systems and sensors among others. Coupled with this there has been a massive liberalisation of the drone policy under which 25 forms have been reduced to just 5. Further, 72 types of fees have been reduced to 4 and approximately 90% of airspace has been marked as ‘Green’ under which no permission is required to operate drones.
The liberalisation in the drone policy has allowed drones to be used for various activities including relief and rescue operations, and transporting essential medical supplies. Drone technology has contributed to the rapid implementation of the SVAMITVA scheme of the Government of India.
The scheme aims to establish clear ownership of property in rural areas, by mapping land parcels and providing a ‘Record of Rights’ to village household owners. Drone surveys have been completed in more than 2.20 Lakh villages so far.
Krishi Udan Scheme
Another area where Civil Aviation policy has contributed is in the area of agriculture. The Krishi Udan Scheme is focused on transporting perishable food products of farmers from the hilly areas, north-eastern states and tribal areas. Under this scheme full waiver of landing, parking, terminal and route navigation charges are provided in a total of 58 airports.
India’s Civil Aviation Ministry has also been instrumental in rescuing Indians and foreign nationals from harm’s way. As a part of the Vande Bharat Mission, India operated air bubbles to facilitate the travel of 1.83 crore passengers during the various Covid-19 waves. Further, Operation Ganga rescued 22,500 Indian students from Ukraine at the peak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
The synergy between Tourism and Civil Aviation in propagating India’s tourism potential and our cultural and spiritual heritage is a well-known fact. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Kushinagar airport in October 2021, he said that the airport is a tribute to the devotion of Buddhist society around the world. He further stated that Tourism in all its forms, whether for faith or for leisure, needs modern infrastructure and airways is one of the most crucial components. Taking this into account, the Ministry of Tourism also funds more than 50 routes and has approved another 10 routes under the RCS-UDAN Scheme. As we enter Amrit Kaal, Indian aviation is flying high.