The Hindu explains: From Rajeev Kumar to flights in the northeast

In northeast, air links shrinking

The day Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation for the first civilian airport in Arunachal Pradesh, Jet Airways operated its last flight on the Guwahati-Aizawl route. By withdrawing from Mizoram, the private airliner joined an expanding list of flight operators that have suspended operation from new and existing routes in the geographically challenged northeastern region. This has undermined New Delhi’s ambitious flagship regional connectivity scheme UDAN, an acronym for the Hindi phrase Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik meaning ‘let the common man fly.’

Why was the flight terminated?

Mizoram’s Lengpui Airport, 32 km from the capital Aizawl, took a little more than two years to be completed in February 1998. It soon became the busiest airport in the region after the ones in Assam’s Guwahati, Manipur’s Imphal and Tripura’s Agartala. But the airlines began withdrawing operations for reasons such as safety, maintenance and viability. If an accident made Northeast Shuttles stop its Cessna flights in 2011, losses made Kingfisher Red withdraw a year later. Air India ended its Guwahati-Aizawl flights as did SpiceJet in less than a year after its inaugural flight in October 2016. Jet Airways, once the only private airline flying to and from northeastern India, withdrew from Aizawl on February 10. The airline attributed it to non-viability of the route because of fuel price rise, a depreciating rupee and a difficult pricing environment.

Is only Mizoram affected?

No. Jet Airways withdrew from Imphal and Assam’s Silchar and Jorhat, along with Aizawl. Much before the first round of UDAN was launched in April 2017, private airlines had withdrawn from Nagaland’s Dimapur.

The Hyderabad-based Air Deccan, which won exclusive rights in the UDAN bidding to connect Meghalaya capital Shillong to Aizawl, Agartala, Silchar, Dimapur and Imphal, operated only 10 flights to Agartala and Dimapur in May 2018. The Delhi-based Zoom Air operated between Assam’s Tezpur and Kolkata for only three months, till July 2018, before withdrawing owing to “technical issues.” And from September 1, 2018, SpiceJet suspended its operation from Agartala, six years after Jet Airways and a few other small airlines had withdrawn.

Has the demand gone down?

According to Zoliana Chhakchhuak, Aizawl-based head of a regional tour operators’ association, viability is often cited by airliners, despite a passenger occupancy rate of 60-70% in most flights, and more people in the region flying than ever before.

While some of the smaller airports have flights connecting Kolkata and Delhi, the withdrawal of service to and from Guwahati — the hub of communication in the region — is expected to affect tourism, a sector that has capitalised on peace in the region. Airliners and the Airports Authority of India (AAI) agree that the passenger volume has doubled in the last five-six years from Guwahati and other popular airports in the region. But improved road and rail connectivity, they said, have become a bane for smaller airports.

For instance, a two-hour drive brings a passenger from Shillong and an overnight train trip brings one from Dimapur to Guwahati.

Where is connectivity headed?

The Ministry of Civil Aviation announced the opening of 92 air routes in the region in the second round of UDAN in November 2017. Bidders snapped up six airports – Rupsi, Jorhat, Lilabari and Tezpur in Assam, and Tezu and Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh — and 12 routes, of which only two are operational. These are Jorhat-Kolkata and Lilabari-Kolkata serviced by Indigo Airlines and SpiceJet. Rupsi and Tezu are yet to be operational, while Pasighat is the only new airport to have come up under the regional connectivity scheme.

In May 2018, Air India started a flight between Guwahati and Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh with VIPs, including Chief Minister Pema Khandu, on board. The militarily strategic airport, which allows Sukhoi 30 to land and take off, has had very few civilian flights. AAI officials say UDAN, in its current form, is difficult for smaller airliners to sustain. Aviation experts say the scheme has not been able to add wings because it is aimed more at reaping political benefits than increasing connectivity. Furthermore, it does not have enough incentives for airlines to ignore the issue of viability.

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2020 12:39:54 AM |

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