Saturday, October 9, 2010

No Room for Growth

In India, Helo Operations Seem Grounded
Aviation Week & Space Technology Oct 11 , 2010 , p. 62
Neelam Mathews
New Delhi

Infrastructure bottlenecks slow helicopter fleet expansion in India

With the world’s second largest population and the seventh biggest country by land mass, India would seem prime territory for helicopters. But it has an abysmal 254 registered rotorcraft in a fleet spread among 98 operators.

The Rotor Wing Society of India (RWSI) says that number could double in five years and take off from there if regulatory constraints holding back airport and landing pad improvements can be overcome.

On the 1,000-member RWSI’s “must have” list, landings at the country’s two largest airports, in New Delhi and Mumbai, ranks at the top. Members want separate facilities for helicopters at the airports, both privately owned, and they are also seeking a “level playing field” for rotorcraft operations in terms of routes, and use of helipads irrespective of fixed-wing operations and aviation taxes, which are not applied the same as with fixed-wing aircraft.

“There is no commercial benefit that [private] airports get from operating helicopters,” RWSI President K. Sridharan explains. As a result, there is little incentive for airports to accommodate helicopters, regardless of the value their operations might bring to the public.

“Airports Authority [of India] must take [the] initiative in developing heliports in the country,” he says.

A tourist-oriented airport for helicopters has been established at Chemchey in the state of Sikkim in northwest India. And Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd., which is 79% government owned and 21% by the Oil and Natural Gas Corp., opened a second facility on the outskirts of North Delhi in time for the Commonwealth Games, which began Oct. 3. Still, operators worry about access.

“India is blessed with a flying club and airport in the heart of Delhi,” notes Singh Deo, managing director of Bell Helicopters India. “But it is not being used due to security concerns.” The worry is that VIPs live nearby. That conflict—between the privileged and open aviation—is what needs to change, he says. “It’s a question of mind-set.”

While improved flight routes for helicopters are being designed for New Delhi and Mumbai, issues remain. One example is a recent order that helicopters must fly north before proceeding to their destination. A flight from New Delhi west to Jaipur should take a half hour. But the rule demands a dogleg flight path that stretches it to a full hour.

Critics also point to ineffective management of helicopter operations and the involvement of state governments as impediments. Existing laws and poor business practices have prevented one northern state from finding operators even though there are 37 helipads and three airports available.

A lack of transparency in granting licenses is one stumbling block, according to critics. “Every contract is set up to favor certain people,” says one operator. Bottlenecks are another. “There is untapped potential in the arena of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) in India,” says Eurocopter Sales Director Cecile Arnaud.

As elsewhere, critics say poor airport infrastructure and regulatory roadblocks prevent hospitals from using helipads for patient transfers. “There is no commercial validity in setting up HEMS at the moment,” says Westland Support Services General Manager K.V. Kunhikrishnan.

Operators say they are ready to serve the capital, but since local officials do not see commercial helicopter operations as viable, flight opportunities are limited.

“When we worked on the master plans for Delhi and Mumbai, one of the key concerns was regarding helicopter operations, particularly related to HEMS and defense,” says Satyaki Raghunath of Jacobs Consultancy. “Issues of security and limited airfield and airspace capacity are of great concern.”

An airport official responds, “If we do not plan, growth can be chaotic.”

While no plan to foster helicopter growth is in place, Raghunath figures it is just a matter of time. But he also notes that India is adjusting to the realities of the dramatic growth in commercial aviation over the past decade.

“We have limped along for the past 20 years,” he says. “Now we want to play catch-up when commercial aviation traffic has been growing between 10-15% year-on-year. Miracles do not happen overnight.”

Add to this India’s inherent bureaucratic caution. The country is prone to push for new rules every time there is an aviation incident. Bell Helicopter’s Deo cites a recent crash that killed the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh in south India. The state approved a rule requiring a trial landing prior to every VIP flight. “Economics aside, this does not necessarily mean the [VIP’s] flight will be safe,” he says.

Pressure to serve booming industries such as energy might be an incentive for government action. India now has only 37 helicopters providing logistic services—25 on the west coast, 12 in the east. A boom in the search for natural gas is expected to push that number up because the industry is so dependent on helicopters to reach offshore facilities.

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