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Spreading wings

Editorial | New Delhi |

“If pigs could fly…” Using that unflattering comparison would certainly lend itself to being unfairly harsh and cynical, yet it is not entirely inappropriate when putting a realistic “frame” on the rosy picture presented by the civil aviation ministry on the ambitious bid to enhance regional connectivity via the ‘Udan’ flight plan. The awarding of 128 routes to some 50 un-served and under-served airports does hold much potential, but there is scope for considerable buffeting between the plans drawn up at Rajiv Gandhi Bhawan and what translates into action on the ground and in the air. Alas, apart from its unquestioned skill in poll manipulation, the performance of the NDA government does not inspire confidence in the management sphere, and Ashok Gajapati Raju and Jayant Sinha are not in the same league as Amit Shah and Narendra Modi when it comes to “producing results”. A range of mind-boggling figures were presented at the launch of Udan, as if the domestic civil aviation sector had been re-born. Yet even those figures trigger scope for skepticism, so it would be advisable to wait for the schemes to get airborne before making value-assessments. Sure there is much that merits appreciation, particularly the geographical spread of the towns being air-linked. But the scheme, at least at first glance, creates the impression of a hub-and-spoke exercise ~ linking small towns to a larger one in the region. Is that true regional connectivity if it means first touching base at a “metro”, then taking a connecting flight? Of course the direct links between the six or seven major towns to urban centres in the region are not to be scoffed at.
Much will depend on the schedules the airlines will formulate and implement, the frequency of flights, the type of aircraft to be deployed ~ and of course how effective will the authorities be in ensuring the “fare cap” on a specified number of seats per flight. The track-record on that front is not re-assuring and the minister has firmly ruled out fixing an upper limit on fares on “general flights”: so will the showing on Udan be markedly different? Airlines operate in accordance with market conditions ~ quite a few have “crashed” ~ so what guarantee they will persist with the scheme after the subsidies period runs out? A pessimistic view is that the Vayudoot fiasco could repeat itself, for private operators are not in the charity business that the “feeder airline” supposedly was. What about MPs using their “free” tickets on the Udan services? That would certainly impact financial viability, as well as leave Alliance Air, SpiceJet, Air Deccan, Turbo Megha Airways and Air Odisha Aviation vulnerable to much pressure. For MPs, as a recent happening underscored, do have “clout”.