Our government’s target is 220 airports by 2025: Jyotiraditya Scindia

Jyotiraditya Scindia [Photo: Twitter/@JM_Scindia]

Union Minister for Civil Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia is an articulate and suave politician. He is holding a position that was once held by his late father, Madhavrao Scindia, from 1991 to 1993. He is a Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha representing Madhya Pradesh. He served as the minister of state for telecommunications, posts and IT in 2009 as the minister of state for commerce and industry, and then, in 2012 as minister of power (independent charge).

Scindia left Congress and joined the BJP in 2020 due to certain differences with the Congress leadership. Along with him, MLAs loyal to him resigned from the grand old party leading to a political crisis in the state which in due course of time resulted in the resignation of Kamal Nath as chief minister. On 23 March 2020, Shivraj Singh Chouhan was sworn in as chief minister.

On 19 June 2020, Scindia was elected BJP Rajya Sabha MP from Madhya Pradesh. On 7 July 2021, Scindia was appointed as the Union minister of civil aviation in the Modi Government after a Cabinet reshuffle in July 2021. In February 2022, Scindia was appointed PM Modi’s special envoy to Romania to oversee the evacuation of Indian nationals in Ukraine resulting from the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Anjali Bhatia talked to Jyotiraditya Scindia to know more about his plans. Excerpts:

Anjali Bhatia: It has been more than one-and-a-half years since you assumed charge of the Aviation ministry. How do you see your tenure in terms of achievements?

Jyotiraditya Scindia: Well, there have been many. The one thing we are really proud of course is bringing our children back from Ukraine which was indeed a daunting task, but with Prime Minister Modi’s direction, we were able to accomplish that.

There have been many more. In July 2021, only 12 states and Union territories were charging a low VAT of 1-4 per cent on the fuel, while the rest were taxing it at a steep 20-30 per cent. On our request, another 17 states reduced the VAT on ATF to join the ranks of the other 12 states. Today, 29 states tax fuel at 1-4 per cent.

There has been progress in the manufacturing of aircraft in the country. In 2021, Boeing announced the addition of a new production line under its joint venture, Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL) to manufacture complex structures for the 737 airplanes; Safran Group, a French multinational aviation company, has started setting up its largest and first aircraft engine MRO facility in India with an initial investment of $150 million; setting up of Private manufacturing unit for C295.

We are exploring the possibilities of developing Delhi as a hub. Airlines, both domestic and international, are collaborating with major airports to get more slots and ensure that Minimum Connect Time (MCT) is reduced to internationally acceptable levels. Digi yatra, one of our initiatives, is a transformative concept, and I am confident that India will absorb this mode of travel in no time. We have already achieved 2 lakh app downloads in 1.5 months of the launch of digi yatra. Besides, four more airports, Pune, Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Vijayawada will have the Digi Yatra facility operationalized by March 2023. The infusion in other airports will be gradual.

We also formulated a comprehensive drone import policy which was notified on 9th February 2022, banning the import of foreign drones and freeing up the import of drone components. Drone (Amendment) Rules, 2022 notified on 11th February 2022 abolished the requirement of a drone pilot license. Thus bringing clarity to the vertical and streamlining it.

AB: What are the major challenges in the aviation industry today?

JS: Civil aviation is one of the most badly hit sectors by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the aviation sector, we are still 20-25 per cent behind our pre-COVID levels in terms of international passengers. As an impact of the pandemic, global supply chains have been disrupted. This resulted in delays in the procurement of aircraft units from international suppliers, and low passenger inflow and outflow. Another challenge for the industry has been the long-held bilateral ties with multiple countries which hampers our capacity to become a global aviation hub. CAP 2016 envisages that the government will enter into an ‘Open sky’ ASA on a reciprocal basis with SAARC countries and countries with territory located entirely beyond a 5000 km radius of New Delhi.

Unlimited flights above the existing bilateral rights will be allowed directly to and from major international airports within the country as notified by MoCA from time to time. However, the points of call at other airports under the existing ASA will continue to be honored till the same are renegotiated. In accordance with the above policy, 49 countries beyond 5,000 km from Delhi were offered open sky in 2016. As of date, there are 20 countries beyond 5000 Km that have formalized open sky arrangements with India. The last such arrangement was done with Canada in 2022.

AB: How has the progress of Gati Shakti been in the aviation sector?

JS: Gati Shakti aims to synergize key infrastructure projects of all key infrastructure ministries, including Railways, Roadways, Waterways, and Aviation, for planning and coordinated execution of nationwide infrastructure projects including all the State Govts. The state governments, defence establishments, and other ministries such as the Ministry of Shipping are an integral part of the development of aviation infrastructure including the development of New Greenfield Airports, the upgradation of existing airports/airstrips, construction of heliports and water aerodromes.

PM Gati Shakti will help in the development of other infrastructure within a 20 km radius of the location of upcoming airports. The progress of multi-modal connectivity to airports, removal of HT lines, realignment of water bodies, realignment of roads, etc. can be synchronized with airport development. Identification of airports will also augment other economic sectors like textile, pharma, defence corridors, IT parks, industrial corridors, fishing clusters, and agriculture zones to plan their air cargo transport planning. MoCA has embarked on an ambitious plan for the next 5 years for the development and modernization of various airports in the country, which include Greenfield airports, expansion of existing facilities, and new civil enclaves and water aerodromes to boost tourism.

AB: There is talk of making aviation feasible for the common man. What steps are being done to reduce the cost of flying in the country?

JS: The civil aviation sector has “crests and troughs” and air ticket pricing depends on seasons but passengers can benefit from booking in advance, with high ticket pricing, especially during the festive season, the civil aviation minister said it is extremely important to understand that the sector is a seasonal industry.

When the festive season starts in October all the way up to February is the peak season of civil aviation and you then get into a little bit of a medium lull situation and then the trough, which is the monsoon season, is really a low season in terms of civil aviation… The civil aviation sector functions on what is called the Reservation Booking Designator (RBD), where if you book very far in advance you will get very low fares and as the plane starts filling up, the fare is certain to go up and that is a practice followed all across the globe.”

It was the only industry where our planes were on the tarmac for almost 18 to 24 months and the very fact that we have experienced a V-shaped recovery speaks great volumes of the resoluteness of our carriers and the capability to supply that service to the common man.

The air turbine fuel (ATF), which is a very important ingredient as raw material and makes up close to about 50 per cent of a carrier’s cost structure, has gone up from pre-Covid levels between ₹35,000 to ₹40,000 a kilo liter to present day’s level of ₹1, 17,000 a kilolitre. There has been an almost 2.5 times jump in terms of the main raw material cost in the cost structure, which comprises almost 50 per cent. That too has an effect on fares.

AB: How do you plan to double the civil aviation infrastructure by 2025? How has the progress been so far?

JS:  Our government has set a target of building 220 airports in the country by 2025. The market share of Indian companies in international freight traffic was limited to only 2 per cent during the COVID environment and has now reached 19 per cent. He also talked about cargo revenue and said, “Cargo revenue, which was only Rs 1,500 crore, has increased to Rs 2,300 crore today. India has made progress in both domestic and international travel during the COVID-19 period. Cargo flights for perishable food items will be increased by 30% over the next few years with 133 new flights.

We plan to build 33 new domestic cargo terminals and set up 15 new flight training schools for pilots, creating more jobs and giving thrust to the drone sector. The Airports Authority of India (AAI) and the private sector will invest Rs 1 lakh crore in the next 2-3 years. In the Greenfield area, four private-sector airports will be built at Mopa, Navi Mumbai, Jewar, and Bhogapuram. Rs 30,664 crore will be invested in the Greenfield sector by the private sector. Seven new airports in Delhi, Bangalore, and Hyderabad, and brownfield expansion in Lucknow, Mangalore, Guwahati, and Ahmedabad will be done. A total investment of Rs 34,000 crore will be made in brownfield airports.

Greenfield airports are those that are built from scratch on a new site (undeveloped). However, Brownfield airports are those where there is already a structure or another airport that is being remodeled for a new airport. Brownfield redevelopment can be more affordable as the necessary infrastructure such as drainage, power, roads, transport networks, etc. are already in place. Today this (civil aviation industry) sector has become the center of economic development. An investment of Rs 100 brings an economic benefit of Rs 310 to the country. One direct job creation in this sector creates 6.1 indirect jobs in the country.

AB: What do you think should be done to take the aviation industry to the next level?

JS: Things are stabilising after the Covid pandemic. Now, most airlines are making a profit. The number of air passengers is also growing. Year-on-year growth of 49 per cent is impressive in the sector.

I see civil aviation making strides in three areas. Infrastructure – India prior to 2014 had 74 airports and over the last 9 years, that number has doubled to 147. It’s our commitment to you (people) that by 2025 we will have more than 200 airports, heliports, and wardrobes in India.

Innovations like Digi Yatra will transform travel across every airport. We already have achieved 2 lakh app downloads in 1.5 months of the launch of digi yatra. Aviation will see a new entrant i.e. Electric Vehicles Take Off and Landing (EVTOL) across the country. You will also see new small aircraft models come up to cater to last-mile connectivity needs. We have Dornier currently, but you’ll witness many more in that category. Moreover, we will move from civil aviation to a civil aviation ecosystem, which will have thriving pilot training, MROs, aircraft manufacturing, ground handling, etc in India – rather than depending on imports.

The last-mile connectivity will be a key focus area, but besides that India should be able to provide direct connectivity to many more far-flung regions. Our airports like Delhi, and Mumbai are one of the busiest airports the world over – there is no reason why India should not have its own 1 or 2 hubs to serve our international traffic. Growth trajectory with regard to passenger numbers has picked up since covid-19 and it is only going to rise monumentally in the next decade (from the current 12 crores to almost 40 cr passengers).