Sunday, April 04, 2021

Polls help chopper charters fly out of Covid mire

Mumbai: The ongoing assembly elections in four states have apparently vaccinated the Indian helicopter charter industry against the debilitating effects of the Covid pandemic. Industry insiders say that it’s the first time ever that helicopters have been in high demand for assembly poll campaign in states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Assam.

In states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Gujarat, political parties use helicopters like cars, even duirng assembly election campaigns, said an aircraft charter industry veteran. But the scene was different in other states.

“Traditionally, politicians in the south stuck to roadshows and used the media for canvassing. But in the current elections, almost 10-12 helicopters are being used, which is somewhat of a record. West Bengal and Assam being the larger states and also experiencing intense competition, with an estimated 20-plus helicopters being used in these two states,’’ said Capt Uday Gelli, western region president, Rotary Wing Society of India.

He added that this time around, even small-time politicians have hired helicopters for canvassing votes. “Unlike in the past wherein parliamentary elections attracted the maximum usage of helicopters in these states, now even assembly elections are witnessing largescale usage of helicopters here,” Capt Gelli said.

Mandar Bharde, managing director of charter company MAB Aviation Pvt Ltd said: “About 90% of the two dozen-odd on-shore twin-engine helicopters in India are currently engaged in election campaigning. Political parties are now trying to pull a couple of helicopters engaged in off-shore flying to oil rigs as well to fill the 25% shortage in supply.”

However, single-engine helicopters are in moderate demand because an aviation circular issued a few years ago made twin engines mandatory even for state cabinet ministers, he added.

Capt Gelli said: ``Earlier, other than Jayalalitha, no one hired a chopper in Tamil Nadu. Now everyone— from Stalin, Kamal Hasan and local parties like TMC, DMK, AIADMK, AIUDF etc — have hired helicopters to move their leaders within the state.”

While Jayalalithaa had hired a Bell 412 for her last election — she preferred it as the state too owned one and she was familiar with it, the current favourite among the top brass apparently is the AugustaWestland 139 for its quiet cabin, leg room, speed. “It’s priced at Rs 4-5 lakh an hour as compared to Rs 2.5 lakh/hour for an entry-level twin engine,’’ said Bharde.

Apart from cutting travel time, another reason to hire helicopters is because they are crowd pullers in mofussil areas of Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Assam. “Helicopters never fly to many of these remote places other than during elections. People flock to see them, many crowd around to touch the helicopter and even meet the pilots,” said Capt Gelli.

04/04/21 Manju V/Times of India

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