It’s election season, and can those flying machines remain on the ground? Helicopters and small planes and aerodromes are kept “battle-ready” as leaders try to cover as much ground as possible during their hectic, pan-India campaign.

Helicopters have been doing campaign duty for decades. But now, planes have joined them, both covering many more miles, as star campaigners travel vast distances and more leaders fly with the coming up of regional parties.

“There is a huge last-minute demand for aircraft. Without them, no leader can cover even 200 constituencies,” G.R. Gopinath, chairman, Deccan Charters, says. “Most of our aircraft are booked. The rates are high because the machines take a beating in dust in remote areas.”

Air-charter operators say the demand for twin-engine helicopters has outstripped supply, taking their rent up by 30-35 per cent. Small turboprop planes deployed for State-level campaigns command an 18 per cent premium.

Star campaigners like Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi take mid- and large-size executive jets, visiting every State and addressing multiple rallies. For short-haul flights, mostly intra-State, the leaders take helicopters or small planes. But, by rule, copters can fly only till sunset.

The Congress and the BJP will require 15 mid- to large-size private jets. The Aam Aadmi Party has not hired any, charter service providers say.

Large executive jets are rented out at Rs. 3 lakh to Rs. 3.5 lakh an hour. The most preferred models are Falcon 2000 and Challenger 604. Rates have not gone up for such planes as the country has plenty of them. Mid-size jets such as Hawker 750, Hawker 800 and Cessna XLS command a stable Rs. 2 lakh to Rs 2.5 lakh an hour.

All booked

For regional leaders in 13 prominent States, many helicopters and small turboprop planes have been hired. Charter operators say 12 to 14 helicopters each have been blocked for large States with multiple regional parties. Parties in other States have booked four to six each. The overall demand for 250 helicopters, however, cannot be met. Though India has a larger fleet, most are deployed on oil rigs, for religious tourism and so on.

While the chief campaigners will block 15 medium to big private jets, up to 80 small aircraft have been hired for State-level politicians. The independent candidates have also booked aircraft for campaigning.

Twin-engine helicopters such as Bell 412, Bell 429, Eurocopter EC135 and Sikorsky S-76 C++ are in short supply as these have been booked for Chief Ministers and top politicians who are mandated to fly in copters with twin-pilot operation. They command Rs. 2 lakh to Rs. 3 lakh an hour, which is 30-70 per cent higher than the normal rates.

“All are willing to pay any price for these helicopters which are in short supply. Among single-engine copters, Bell 407 is preferred the most. A total of more than 125 helicopters are estimated to be deployed for campaigning,” says Rajeev Wadhwa, chairman and chief executive officer, Baron Luxury and Lifestyle.

Bell 407 and other single-engine helicopters such as Eurocopter EC350 and Bell 206 command an hourly rental of Rs. 1 lakh to Rs. 1.5 lakh.

Small turboprop aircraft come for Rs. 90,000 to Rs. 1.5 lakh an hour, with a premium of 12-18 per cent during the election. The models include King Air C-90 and Beechcraft B-200.

“Helicopter movements have increased in the past few days, and I am told that these are political movements. It will peak next month,” says Rajesh Kale, Administrative Manager, Bombay Flying Club at Juhu Aerodrome.

“This is a good time for air charters to do business with political parties, but this comes with enormous challenges to fulfil the demanding schedule of politicians,” an air-charter service provider says.

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