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‘Chopper services need infrastructural support’

Abhijeet Anand |


The Rotary Wing Society of India (RWSI), an umbrella body for helicopter operators, was set up in 1998. RWSI has been at the forefront in raising issues of helicopter operators.

It has been instrumental in giving safety training to helicopter pilots, organising seminars on safe flying and also conducting safety audits.

Four helicopter operators, including the state-run Pawan Hans, have got rights to fly in the second round of bidding for the Regional Connectivity Scheme.

In an interview with ABHIJEET ANAND, president and founder of RWSI, Air Vice Marshal K Sridharan (Retired), spoke about problems being faced by helicopter operators.

He pointed out that DGCA regulations do not allow single engine helicopters for passengers, making the UDAN scheme unviable for helicopter operators. Excerpts:

Q: In the first round of bidding for the Regional Connectivity Scheme no rights were awarded to helicopter operators. But in the second round of bidding four helicopter operators have been awarded. What has changed?

A: RCS was not appealing commercially to the operators, including the fact that they made it available only for twin engine craft.

Among the twin-engine helicopters, there were those who were operating latest aircraft and those operating old aircraft.

If I operate a 20-year-old helicopter and you use a depreciated value for the asset, it keeps coming down every year.

The value of the helicopter is reduced to literally nothing. For those who operate such helicopters the cost of operations per hour is met as per the terms and conditions that were given in the RCS.

If you were operating with a 20-year-old Dauphin helicopter, it was possible that the cost of operations was such that you could bid for the RCS with whatever compensation was provided.

But it was not commercially viable for those operators with the latest version of machines. That is the basic issue.

Q: What kind of support is given by the state governments under RCS for the helicopter operator?

A: There are a number of states which are in hilly terrain. Starting with Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and when you go down, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland…Many of these states have their capitals in mountainous terrain.

As it is there is a scheme available where the government is able to reimburse some amount for use of helicopters for providing connectivity. In those areas, there are already a large number of helicopter operators.

If the passenger is a government official he is compensated for the flight he has availed. But that kind of scheme has not been extended in RCS for single-engine helicopters.

There are two issues that are stalling helicopters’ entry into RCS. One is related to the words “non-scheduled operators”. Currently, helicopters in India are commercially operating under NSOP category.

There are countries where helicopters are operated under schedule operations scheme also in the sense that there are frequent flights required between A and B.

These are advertised in time. You maintain your operations as per the schedule declared and notify it to public. Those operations are scheduled operations.

In India, unfortunately, helicopters are not used for scheduled operations. Second, there is a general taboo as per ICAO rules on use of single engine operations, be it fixed wing or rotary wing in scheduled operations.

These two aspects have come in the way of DGCA permitting single-engine helicopters. But, interestingly, single-engine operators are used for the public commercially under non-scheduled operations category. We don’t see any logic in why it should not be extended to scheduled category.

Q: Under RCS scheme helicopter operations have been allowed in priority areas. Do you think it is encouraging or discouraging?

A: It should be in priority areas. If an operator has to sustain operations it should be commercially viable. There is a need for it. For instance, look at the kind of traffic there is in J&K, HP, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

There are compelling reasons for people to travel to the hilly areas from plains. Those are priority areas.

If you do not permit use of helicopters, there are no other effective methods of speedy transportation. By road it will take three or four days whereas helicopters can do it in 30 to 40 minutes.

Q: Is the quality of infrastructure for helicopters sufficient for RCS scheme?

A: Today good infrastructure facilities are much needed. In the armed forces, helicopters are extensively used. They operate using minimum infrastructure facilities.

Of course, there are mission risks they take. Helicopters by nature are meant to operate with minimum infrastructure. Because you are able to take off vertically means you don’t need a runway.

If you use the area frequently, you can make it a proper helipad preventing dust or particles causing any damage to the helicopter and providing basic facilities for passengers.

If you are going to operate schedule operations, then people boarding the helicopter must be given space for resting… you need to have various other amenities… it will only encourage people to use helicopters.

Infrastructure meaning facilities and public amenities are a must. If you use helicopters infrequently you do not need huge paraphernalia.

If you are operating frequently then the chances of something going wrong like a fire breaking out increases.

Anything used frequently must have appropriate safety services available to counter any possibilities.

Q: Is the viability gap funding (VGF) payment made by the government adequate for the helicopter operators?

A: This VGF payment will be appropriate only if they permit single engine helicopters to operate. The cost of operations of a twin-engine helicopter is almost double or even more.

It is Rs 75,000 to Rs 80,000 as the cost per hour for a single-engine helicopter. It will be literally double or more for twin-engine helicopters. So cost per seat goes up. VGF in that case may not be adequate.

That is the reason we have been insisting on permitting single-engine helicopters to operate. There were times when single-engine helicopters were able to take 8 to 9 passengers.

Now you have twin-engine category for light helicopters. It is only when you increase the number of passengers that you introduce another engine.

Truly speaking, twin engine does not necessarily mean added safety. Additional engine is to cater for engine failure.

One additional engine helps in going through the problem of engine failure. But there could be other snags also.

Q: Does it make you happy that no levy is being imposed on helicopter operators for Regional Connectivity Fund?

A: Helicopter operators should be exempted. I will give you an example to say how helicopters are unnecessarily being taxed. There is a fee called Route Navigation Facility Charges (RNFC).

For example, let’s say a helicopter takes off from Chandigarh, goes to Shimla and then to Hamirpur and Dharamshala and back. Before it departs, the RNFC charge is collected.

It may come to Rs 35000 to Rs 40000 which is collected by Air Traffic Controller.

Truly speaking, what kind of navigation facilities will you provide for helicopters? You lose radio contact as soon as you depart and enter the valley.

In mountainous terrain, unless there is line of sight communication you are not able to communicate.

In those conditions, you are not in radio contact with Chandigarh. Second, there is no navigational facility in any of these routes.

Unless you are returning from Shimla to Chandigarh and you are just a few minutes away from Chandigarh, then you will get to know this through radio. Otherwise there is no use. You are being charged for no services provided.