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UDAN scheme to take off: 43 unserved airports to start flight operations from next month

As many as 43 unserved airports in the country are expected to have flight operations from next month in a phased manner with the AAI receiving 43 initial proposals from 11 bidders for 190 routes under the regional air connectivity scheme UDAN. The government’s ambitious UDAN (Ude Desh Ke Aam Naagrik) scheme, under which fares have been capped at Rs 2,500 for a one-hour flight, aims at boosting air connectivity to and from unserved and under-served airports and making flying more affordable. Making the announcement in New Delhi on Friday, Minister of State for Civil Aviation Jayant Sinha said that the “game changer” and “step change” UDAN scheme would boost the national and regional aviation in the country.

“Based on the first phase of bidding for airports, the UDAN scheme is going to be a game changer, as it will increase the total number of operational airports in the country to 118 from 75 now,” Sinha said. He said the government hopes to have the first flight under UDAN in February as several airports like in Jaisalmer (Rajasthan) and Cooch Behar (West Bengal) are “ready to go”. The bids for the routes would be finalised by February 3, he said. In all, 11 bidders have come forward to connect 30 airports which are currently operational, 12 which are underserved and 43 where not a single flight lands, according to the Civil Aviation Ministry. In all, 55 airports, which have either no operations or limited operations, would have regular flights now, Sinha said.

“We believe the first RCS flight can take off some time in February itself because there are 12 underserved airports as well. These airports have flight service and will only be adding flights to them,” he said. Airports such as Bikaner, Jaisalmer, Jalgaon and Cooch Behar, and Pant Nagar are some of the airports which are “ready to go” now and just need operators to launch flights, Sinha said, adding, “we will expect that these airports start getting utilised almost immediately as soon as the operator is there.” Sinha, however, declined to give details of the bidders, saying, “we are inviting counter bids at this stage and once the counter bids come, the bidders may change, the routes may change as well.”

“This is just the first round and as other rounds are in progress we will massively expand our aviation network,” he said it’s also a great outcome for the large national airlines as they would have more traffic coming into important hub airports. According to the Civil Aviation Ministry, Maharashtra has the highest number of unserved airports at 19, followed by Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh at 11 each. Similarly, West Bengal and Karnataka have seven such airports each which do not have one single flight operations. Unserved airports are the one where there is no flight operations whereas the underserved airports have been categorised as the ones which have three or less flight per week. While the deadline for submitting initial proposals ended on January 16, the counter bids for them can be submitted till February 1.

After that, the routes would be awarded to bidders who quote the lowest Viability Gap Funding (VGF) requirement against the routes. Under UDAN, the participating airlines would be extended VGF — that would be jointly funded by the Centre and the state government concerned. Towards VGF, the government has started charging Rs 8,500 levy per departure of flights on major routes. However, airlines have challenged the charging of levy in the court. He said the Government has already received “some of the funds” in the RCS and that Government is expecting cooperation from other airlines to participate in that.

Sinha said the civil aviation Ministry and AAI have already signed MoUs with 15 state governments for the implementation of the RCS scheme while three more states are in discussion for the same. On the issue of levy, Sinha said the Ministry is in discussions with the airlines over the issue, adding that, “we have sought their support as it (UDAN) is in the interest of all, including the consumers and airlines.” UDAN, which would be in place for 10 years, was launched in October 2016 and seeks to provide connectivity to unserved and under-served regions through revival of existing air strips and airports.