Elections have proved to generate peak demand for India’s helicopter operators, but strict enforcement of rules by regulators is making life hard for operators serving candidates in this year’s elections. Concerned about the potential for unsafe operations with rotorcraft being used to fly candidates in and out of neighborhoods during the three-month election period, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has met with stakeholders (helicopter operators, pilots and manufacturers) to outline the importance of adherence to safety guidelines during the elections being held in five Indian states.
“A DGCA analysis of earlier accidents and incidents associated with small aircraft and helicopter operations from improvised airstrips and helipads revealed that instructions were violated time and again and safety was jeopardized,” said the agency’s director general EK Bharat Bhushan in an air safety circular issued on January 13. “Challenges associated with flying during elections included long flying hours, large number of takeoffs and landings, weather changes, lack of proper rest and recuperation arrangements, hurriedly prepared helipads, frequent changes in itineraries, strained security arrangements, crowd control, congested airspace, lack of adequate communication and airspace management.”
In response, the agency is committed to enforcing the current regulations. However, its announcement to the recent meeting of stakeholders has given operators little time to plan for the election. For example, the requirement for pre-flight medical checkups on pilots every day has always been part of the rulebook but has never been enforced before. With no doctors available at the second- and third-tier airports helicopters commonly use, operators must scramble to find a way to adhere to the rule. “Such impractical ideas can be generated only by those who know nothing about commercial flying do not want to learn about it,” a pilot told AIN on condition of anonymity. “If the DGCA has issued a circular on a subject, would it mind telling us how it is to be implemented? Otherwise it’s nothing more than a ‘Fatwa.’”
Despite the new challenges, Indian operators can see up to a four-fold increase in their charter bookings during elections–fueling inflation in associated service charges. For example, the country’s new private airports have imposed exceptional ground handling charges of up to $300 simply for accompanying passengers to their helicopter, cutting into profit margins that the operators assert are already paper thin. The DGCA has pledged to intervene to reduce this charge to $40, but it has not yet issued any directive.
During the three-month election period helicopters are expected to land at 500 temporary helipads. Air traffic controllers will have to contend with limited landing aids and communications technology, and instructions for helicopter crews to use the same radio frequency in uncontrolled airspace had yet to be issued as of January 23. Parking space for helicopters is expected to be in short supply too.