Friday, December 22, 2017

Regional connectivity was an unfulfilled dream: Captain Gopinath on his return to aviation

Air Deccan founder Captain GR Gopinath is making a big-splash return to Indian aviation by launching on Saturday regional flights under the government’s Udan scheme. Network 18's Binoy Prabhakar interviewed Gopinath on WhatsApp at intervals through Friday — he was busy with meetings owing to the impending relaunch — on the airline’s strategy to return with ​Re 1 tickets, the challenges and strategy. Here's an excerpt:

Captain, on tomorrow’s relaunch. Great chatting with you after long. So what are your expectations this time round?

Let me speak of my dreams. ​A huge part of the country is completely unconnected by air and many parts are very poorly served. It’s now largely a Bombay-Delhi driven (air) economy. That doesn’t lend itself to equitable growth. It’s also not a sustainable model for aviation. So I wish to connect nearly 67 small regional towns in the next 5-6 months along with our strategic partner Air Odisha across India.

There’s a pent-up demand there and those people are cut off from being part of the larger economic growth. So I plan to do it under the Udan regional connectivity scheme.

Air Deccan had connected many of these towns in 2003 itself but they are now sadly disconnected after the discontinuation of Kingfisher which acquired Air Deccan (in 2007). So in a sense, it was an unfulfilled dream which I’m fortunate to be in a position to do again.

You were expected to launch operations under the scheduled airline category rather than under the regional air connectivity scheme.

Those plans were overtaken by events. Udan fell in our lap by fortunate and fortuitous circumstances when my team bid and won 86 out of the 126 routes in partnership with Air Odisha because no one (then) was interested in regional connectivity. Now, of course, everyone is jumping in.

Ah, ok. But many experts doubt the sustainability of the regional connectivity scheme because of poor infrastructure, shortage of pilots, higher costs, etc. What do you think?

Yes, these are very valid points. And there are huge challenges. Udan, as the expansion of the acronym (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik) suggests, is a visionary and transformative policy that will change the economic landscape of the country as it will drive investments deep into its bowels and knit areas together which are alienated by subduing geography.

But many stakeholders like the monopoly private sector airports are not aligned to the vision of Udan. In fact, they are working at cross purposes. Also, there have to be reforms in DGCA (aviation regulator) and AAI (Airports Authority of India) rules and regulations to realise the dream of extending low cost air travel to the hinterland. It will also boost tourism and create jobs in those areas as all our major tourist attractions are in remote regional towns. But it’s sustainable because Udan provides subsidy and other tax sops for the initial three years.

​What does your current operations look like?

We will be linking around 60-odd small regional towns across India in the next five-six months — Kolkata to Cooch Bihar, Jamshedpur, Durgapur, Shillong and from there, all of North East, and Ahmedabad to several regional towns such as Pantnagar, Kullu, Shimla, Ludhiana, etc and similarly remote towns like Rourkela in Odisha. We are launching with one 19-seater Beechcraft 1900d aircraft. Three more will be added next month and another eight in four-five months.
22/12/17 Moneycontrol