India’s bizav group ready to meet challenges

 - August 26, 2011, 8:05 AM

Though the pace of business aviation in India has grown steadily over the last decade, the country’s airport infrastructure to handle those flights is still in the rudimentary stage, according to industry sources in the country.

Rockwell Collins Flight Information Systems (formerly Air Routing) told AIN that as of August, it had handled more flights to Delhi and Mumbai (approximately 110) than it did during all of 2008, before the global economic downturn. The number of business aircraft operating in India now exceeds 500, more than double the tally 10 years ago, and India’s Business Aircraft Operators Association (BAOA) expects that number at least to double again over the next 10 years.

“Many Indian companies now realize the necessity of business aviation,” said Mike Hutchinson, Universal Aviation’s regional director of operations for Asia-Pacific, who noted that two general aviation aircraft are being added to the country’s fleet each week. “Along with that demand comes higher expectations and standards. The demand for full ground handling services–private terminals, fast customs and immigration clearance, executive amenities, concierge services and more–is on the rise.”

GA Facilities in the Planning Stages

While the demand may be there, India’s general aviation infrastructure to support that need is lagging. Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport recently saw the opening of a general aviation terminal, the first in the nation. The airport, which was privatized several years ago, handles approximately 36 private aviation movements a day and authorities are projecting a 10-percent annual growth over the next five years.

Other facilities exist at privately operated Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi, and a new business aviation “lounge” opened at Mumbai’s Juhu Airport, but for operators and crews expecting traditional FBO services, these facilities are somewhat lacking. “They might call them FBOs and they might be the beginnings of FBOs, but they are certainly not a full-fledged service FBO that you would think of in the U.S. or Western Europe,” said Matt Pahl, Rockwell Collins’s manager of flight operations. “[They] don’t have their own fuel trucks, and they certainly don’t have any maintenance facilities. If [operators] needed these services they would come from a third party; the FBO wouldn’t have it.”

The facilities are geared toward passenger and crew handling only, offering little more than customs and immigration services and comfortable waiting areas. Aircraft services such as lav, water, fueling and catering are all provided separately by outside companies that have won tenders to serve all the airport customers, not just business aviation, and must be arranged by a flight handler in-country.

Some Indian maintenance providers have received manufacturer approval, but facilities are sparse and operators are unlikely to have heavy maintenance tasks such as C or D checks on larger aircraft done in-country.

Additional facilities for private aviation at the government-owned airports in other Indian cities such as Kolkatta, Bhubaneshwar and Trivandrum have been discussed but they still remain firmly in the planning stages.

“Even at the private airports business aviation is still taking a back seat,” said Capt. Karan Singh, managing director of BAOA, “so it’s obviously even less important as far as government airports go.”

General Aviation Needs Image Makeover

Some have placed the blame for the slow progress in infrastructure development on the Indian government. “The general aviation sector is primarily neglected by the civil aviation authorities,” one industry source in India told AIN. “There is really no concept or thought or structure being put in to start creating more FBOs, so basically this lack of promoting general aviation from the government side leads to the poor infrastructure.” 

“Business aviation still has a sort of negative connotation with the government. The finance ministry, the home ministry, they look at it as a rich man’s toy rather than a tool,” said Singh. He believes the view stems from a persistent lack of awareness. “Business aviation [in India] doesn’t have the kind of visibility it should, and that’s something we are working on as an association,” Singh told AIN. Attempts to reach India’s Civil Aviation Ministry and its Director General of Civil Aviation for comment were unsuccessful as of press time.

“One of the challenges is educating government officials about the value business aviation brings to their airports/communities,” said Universal’s Hutchinson. “Part of that education is reviewing current processes and requirements and working with civil air authorities to try to lessen the burden for operators traveling to India.” 

Singh said it has been a slow journey to change the government’s opinion of the industry. The result has been several policies that he described as short-sighted, notably the 2007 decision to place a 25-percent customs duty on the import of business aircraft. “That might have helped them collect a little bit of money in terms of customs duty, but it scared away so many more people who were going to buy aircraft. Indirectly they probably ended up losing far more than they gained,” he said.

Other problems for business aviation exist as well. At Mumbai’s airport, for example, congestion necessitates several blackout periods for general aviation each day corresponding with peak operation times.

In terms of present operations, for nonscheduled flights into the country, operators must apply for permits seven days in advance, while over-flight permits require approximately three days to process.

Among the solutions to prepare India for its anticipated aviation expansion, Singh suggests the development of dedicated general aviation airports to ease the congestion around the country’s existing multi-use airports. Some business aviation activities were expected to relocate to Juhu, but that has not yet occurred due to lack of infrastructure at the small airport.

Despite these setbacks, BAOA remains committed to its predictions of the growth of India’s business aviation fleet over the next 10 years. “These estimates are what we are going to do despite all these problems,” said Singh. “This is in spite of the government and in spite of the infrastructure. If you start fixing things the way they should be, we could have twice as many or maybe three times as many aircraft.”