Giving wings to the common man

In about two years since it was conceived, UDAN, the Union government’s flagship regional connectivity scheme, has become an important means for making low-cost flying available to people in smaller Indian cities. In these two years, the scheme has brought first-time air connectivity to people of 31 tier-II and tier-III cities. As a  new version of the scheme now starts to link places of tourist interest, it is time to look at the lessons that UDAN has thrown up for civil aviation practitioners, in preparation for taking the next steps. 

UDAN — an acronym for Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik — was conceived in order to make air travel both available and affordable for the common man in small cities, and, through this, push regional growth.  Currently 70 per cent of air traffic in the country caters only to the metros. Until very recently, India had only 75 airports with scheduled commercial operations. Tier-II and tier-III cities have faced a disadvantage owing to lack of infrastructure. If there was connectivity, affordability became an issue owing to high operating costs. UDAN addresses these twin challenges by cutting the cost of operations by extending various incentives to airlines and thus making air tickets affordable.

The scheme is therefore crucial for ensuring that the Indian aviation sector’s success story touches one and all, and tier-II and tier-III cities also join the aviation revolution. At 139 million annual aviation passengers, the number of UDAN flyers would not be huge; however, the impact on the sector’s ecosystem of bringing first-time flyers to the aviation market will be tremendous. 

UDAN works on a new model that does away with the need to deploy huge resources and long gestation periods to make an airport operational. The scheme provides for the revival and upgradation of existing airstrips in small cities where UDAN operations will happen, and concessions from the Centre, states and airport operators to reduce operational costs. This approach not only makes air services available for limited population bases in smaller towns, but also makes these services affordable for them. 

The scheme is however fraught with implementation challenges. The initial focus of the scheme was to select airline operators through a bidding process that would be transparent and fair. It was key to generating confidence among the airlines. In just two rounds of UDAN, 56 airports and 31 heliports have been added to India’s aviation map. Many awarded routes will connect remote areas of the north-eastern states as well as areas affected by left-wing extremism.

Be it Guwahati in Assam to Passighat in Arunachal Pradesh, or Bhubaneswar to Koraput (in Odisha), travel time will come down so dramatically that it will transform the lives of the people in the region. Affordable airfare not only facilitates travel for trade but also for tourism and medical purposes. However, the award of routes under the scheme is only the beginning of the journey. Preparedness of airports and airlines and involvement of state governments are equally important. There are many actors who have to fulfill their responsibilities in tandem. 

A view of Durgapur’s Kazi Nazrul Islam Airport, one of 56 airports and 31 heliports that have been added to India’s aviation map in two rounds of UDAN
Though most state governments came forward and signed MoUs with the Union government, their limited capacities demanded hand-holding support. The civil aviation sector is highly regulated owing to its sensitive nature. Licensing of airports is a tedious process. Safety and security are paramount and the operations have to comply with required regulations. To address these challenges, the implementation mechanism needed to be strengthened.

The Airport Authority of India is providing necessary support to state governments in developing airports, documentation for licensing, procurement of security and fire tender equipment, and so on. In some Defence airports, standard operating procedures have been worked out in consultation with the ministry of defence. Though it took a considerable amount of time, UDAN has been successful in motivating private airports to participate in and extend benefits to UDAN flights. Today, airports such as Jagadalpur in Chhattisgarh and Vidyanagar in Karnataka have become shining examples under UDAN.

The regional connectivity team is learning to work together not only for revival of airports but to facilitate the processes for obtaining air operator permits for selected airline and helicopter operators under the scheme. A few small airline operators who have bid under UDAN are facing teething problems due to their limited capacities. It’s imperative for UDAN to work with small airlines — those that have the potential to take the regional scheme to remote areas. Ready availability of qualified crew is also a major challenge for airlines and significant efforts are needed to create a pool of skilled professionals. These activities have prolonged the timeline, increasing the exasperation of people. 

A positive outcome of UDAN also includes the regulatory framework for “no-frills” airports and an “aircraft-centric security” approach which has cut the cost of infrastructure and operations and will help sustain air connectivity to smaller cities. Though the scheme has taken into consideration the sustainability of the routes, there could be a few situations where UDAN routes may be discontinued for operational reasons or lack of demand. Pragmatically, UDAN has to efficaciously muddle through the market dynamics. 

For the next round of UDAN, those mandated with implementation are expected to be prudent. Plans are already afoot to take the regional connectivity scheme to tourist destinations and expand the scheme to international routes. The scheme will have to meet increasing aspirations and challenges in future. UDAN is literally poised to offer wings to the common man to fly.   
The writer is Joint Secretary, Union Ministry of Civil Aviation. The views expressed are her own

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