After India announced its National Civil Aviation Policy, civil aviation secretary R. N. Choubey spoke to Somesh Jha about the rationale behind easing international norms for airlines, plans to connect small airports and opening up skies in a calibrated manner.
What does the policy mean to Indian passengers?
The biggest achievement of this policy is that it has focussed on ordinary Indians and attempted to create an eco-system to enable them to start flying. Out of 125 crore Indians, 35 crore are middle-class but the number of tickets sold is only eight crore. It’s a pity that middle-class Indians with reasonable amount of disposable income are not able to fly once in four years. Our main focus has been to enable the ordinary Indian to fly. For international passengers, there are two things in the policy. We are now proposing open skies with countries beyond 5,000 km which means many more flights to those countries and much more competition. Secondly, there was a restriction of five years before an airline can start flying abroad. Now, the restriction is gone and therefore the flights can start happening immediately by airlines with 20 aircraft. Everyone is now scampering to get the biggest pie of international market. So, those airlines which don’t quickly go up to 20 aircraft and start operating may find they are late. I expect all the airlines to quickly get capacity for the international segment as well.
Are other nations interested in an open-skies agreement with India beyond the 5,000-km radius?
We could not have initiated the dialogue without the policy in place. It will happen now.
In the long run will there be a policy for countries within the 5,000-km radius?
We should open up skies in a calibrated manner to give time to our domestic airlines to gear themselves up. If I suddenly open up everything, the domestic airlines may not be ready.
First we open beyond 5,000 km and once the domestic carriers have graduated to that level, then we will examine whether we can open up within 5,000 km radius.
It will depend on progress made in beyond 5,000 km radius.
Was auctioning of traffic rights shelved because of opposition from foreign airlines?
It is not correct to say that plan has been shelved. The committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary will examine different ways in which allotment of unilateral of bilateral traffic rights can be done. Therefore, we didn’t wish to mind that committee by saying it will be only through auctions. That’s why we have removed that. Nevertheless, the committee headed by the Cabinet Secretary will certainly have a look at it.
Won’t allowing airlines with 20 aircraft to fly international only dilute the ‘5/20 rule’?
The real problem is not with 20 aircraft but with requirement of five years. Why should an airline wait for five years after it has developed adequate capability for flying abroad?
The adequate capability talked about here is the 20 aircraft i.e. they have enough aircraft to cater to domestic demand as well as international demand.
Once they have that, they don’t have to wait. So, say if there is an airline which, in two years, acquires 20 aircraft by leasing, they should be allowed to fly internationally in two years.
How long would it take to implement regional connectivity in totality?
First of all, the scheme is for 10 years and it will become operational from second quarter of the current financial year.
Once it becomes operational, there are airstrips which are ready and flying can happen immediately. I expect some flights will begin in the next three-four months.
There are 350 airstrips that can be revived. Presently, we plan to revive 50 airports in next three years following which demand will come from other towns and cities as well.
Where will the viability gap funding come from?
We are now working on the detailed scheme which is being drafted.
The scheme will capture everything. We are examining the best way to go forward. But luckily the requirement of fund is not much. Let’s say, initially you are starting a 19-seater aircraft. It doesn’t require too much subsidy but the connectivity will be established. The requirement of subsidy is not much which is an important point which initially even we had overruled.
Why was the plan to charge two per cent levy on all passengers to fund regional connectivity dropped?
We decided that we will create a fund. But from where exactly the money will come will be a part of the scheme to be released separately.