Pvt airlines scuttling regional connectivity scheme

Report by: 
Devsagar Singh
IPA
1 Jan 2017

Now it is confirmed that all domestic airlines, barring PSU carrier Air India, have joined hand to fail the Government’s plan to promote regional connectivity by encouraging setting up of smaller carriers.

The Federation of Indian Airlines which represents scheduled carriers like Jet Airways, Indigo, Spicejet and Go Air have gone to court challenging the Government notification imposing a levy per flight to create a fund for development of regional airports. It is a paltry Rs 7500 to Rs 8500 per flight of levy that the Civil Aviation Ministry notified recently.

The Government wants to take flying to the masses by making if affordable and convenient. This would ultimately lead to growth of the civil aviation sector as a whole. If every Indian in the middle class income bracket, for example, takes just one flight in a year, it would mean sale of 35 crore tickets. It would be a quantum jump from just about 7 crore domestic tickets sold during 2014-15, according to the civil aviation ministry. It is a very valid argument.

Apart from the overall growth of the aviation sector ultimately benefiting the air carriers, consider the convenience for the people who are denied air travel to smaller towns and cities for lack of infrastructure like proper airfields and connecting roads. Most of the funds needed for the development of this infrastructure is, anyway, being provided by the civil aviation ministry and the state governments. The airlines are also being asked to chip in, like a small levy per flight. But these airlines have pleaded that they cannot charge extra from passengers to pay for the levy.

This is a very specious plea. What if the Government charged the amount in the name of, say, the airport development fee? Indeed such a fee was charged in the past for select airports. Now it is for development of around 200 airports across the country. The issue is just about broad-basing fund sources from stake holders. All domestic carriers have huge stake in the development of the civil aviation sector. The Government’s scheme of making flying cheaper (Rs 2500 for a flight of one hour and less) will benefit all.

The Government has been liberal in approach when it comes to domestic airlines. Airlines have been allowed to charge extra for almost everything like baggage fee, cancellation fee etc. It is only after a plethora of complaints from travellers that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has now put a cap on baggage fee and cancellation charges.

As if to retaliate the DGCA capping, these airlines have now started charging what they call ‘seat selection fee’ in their international flights ranging from anything between Rs 4000 and Rs 9000 per seat depending upon flight destination. If a family of five wants to sit together while in flight to London from Delhi, for example, it would have to pay extra money for seat selection. Surely, this practice has been there in most international airlines like Emirates, British Airways, US Airways etc, but Indian carriers were not charging this thus far.

Regulator DGCA can clamp down on such a fee which was not charged earlier, but it is not doing so. It is a measure of its liberal approach towards air carriers. What is disconcerting is that the airlines are not reciprocating in equal measure by refusing to pay the notified levy for development of regional airports and regional connectivity.

Civil aviation is logging a growth of over 20 per cent. Once regional connectivity plan takes off successfully, it is expected to grow further. Any impediment towards this move is unacceptable.

Common man is discouraged from flying because of exorbitant fares. He does it only in emergency like urgent medical need by paying perhaps twice or thrice the normal rate. In a welfare state like ours (or have we quit this concept after liberalization?) should the government not rein in airlines in such a situation and not allow them to fleece in the name of dynamic fare?

It is likely that the domestic carriers may be opposing the coming up of cheap regional carriers for fear of competition. Surely, they may lose business temporarily. But in the long run, when aviation picks up in India’s hinterland, they would gain by larger demand. As major stake holders, it is time they show courage and magnanimity to let the sector grow. It will be for good of all. (IPA)