The western Indian state of Gujarat has what amounts to its first regional airline with the launch of Deccan Shuttles by G.R. Gopinath, who founded India’s first low-cost airline, Air Deccan, before selling it to Kingfisher Airlines. Scheduled operations started on August 27 using a pair of nine-seat Cessna 208B Grand Caravans. The turboprop singles ply the Ahmedabad-Surat-Bhavnagar and Ahmedabad-Kandla routes, marking the first-ever direct air service between provincial cities in this large state. Gopinath, himself a former airline captain, plans to extend the model to northeast India and some regions in the south of the country.
“All the cities in the state have to be accessed by air via Delhi or Mumbai. [What would be] a 20-minute journey [by air] is often turned into a one-day journey. All the cities we now connect to are major industrial hubs,” said Gopinath, who is chairman of Bangalore-based Deccan Charters, the holding company of Deccan Shuttles. Tickets for a typical 20-minute sector on the new service cost less than $100.
Although Deccan Shuttles operates scheduled flights, technically the operation is categorized as a “charter” service under India’s antiquated air-transport regulations. Operators can essentially treat each flight as a whole-aircraft charter by selling individual seats and then claiming that the passengers collectively constitute a charter group. Although Indian regulators technically do not allow a charter operation to advertise fares and schedules, in practice operators find ways to work around the rules.
In Europe, regulations prohibit single-engine commercial operations under instrument flight rules. India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) allows them because it considers modern engines sufficiently reliable.
However, some DGCA rules do limit operations with the Deccan Shuttles fleet. “The Grand Caravan is configured for 12 and we are allowed only nine seats,” explained Gopinath. “This [adds] $12 to each fare for consumers.”
Umesh Baveja, chairman of Regional Airport Holding India, has called for liberalization of the rules covering aircraft seating up to 19 passengers to stimulate the growth of regional airline service in India. “Currently, if an operator is carrying more than nine passengers it needs a pilot, copilot and cabin crew, but in many other countries, cabin crew are required only for flights with more than 19 passengers,” he noted.
High costs present another challenge for India’s emerging regional airlines. The Airports Authority of India recently hiked its “royalty” fees on ground handling services across 60 airports it manages from 13 percent to 35 percent of the service provider’s gross revenues. “We would like to do the ground handling ourselves. Instead, now we have to pay around $280 [per movement],” said Gopinath.
Meanwhile, high training costs in India mean new regional operators will take longer to establish themselves. A pilot operating a single-engine aircraft needs a minimum of 700 hours of total flying experience; 300 hours pilot-in-command (PIC) flying experience; 100 hours of instrument flying experience as PIC; PIC flying experience on type; and 10 hours of PIC flying experience on type in the last six months.
Gopinath told AIN he has identified as a possible future equipment option an 18-seat Grand Caravan, which he considers easy to maintain and can land on some 500 airstrips. “We need the government to bring in necessary reforms [in terms of seating restrictions] on par with Western countries,” he said.
Initially, the company plans to fly around 12 daily flights on its two sets of routes. By the end of the year, it hopes to add two more aircraft to the fleet.
Deccan Shuttles’ parent company provides maintenance for the new operation. It already supports 60 aircraft and has customer service facilities covering Bell, Sikorsky and Eurocopter helicopters. The group operates a fleet of 17 aircraft in the charter sector and, in association with Taj Air, runs a private jet operation called Powerfly.