India’s focus on enhancing air connectivity to hilly, remote, and underserved airports under its Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) appeared to sharpen Thursday as budget carrier SpiceJet launched the first flight to the new greenfield Pakyong Airport in the northeastern state of Sikkim. Pakyong is India’s 100th airport and SpiceJet's ninth destination under the RCS.
SpiceJet operates India’s largest regional fleet, now flying more than 20 Bombardier Q400s and holding an order for 25 more. “SpiceJet has always been a firm believer in the growth story of India’s smaller towns and cities,” said SpiceJet chairman Ajay Singh. “We have worked hard over the years to put these on the country’s aviation map.” The Pakyong airport lies about 35 miles from India’s border with China. It features 5,700-foot-long, 100-foot-wide runway with an apron that can accommodate two ATR 72s simultaneously. Construction to widen the runway to 250 feet for the Indian Air Force continues.
“There has been an astounding increase in regional aviation and an explosion of connectivity in previously unserved areas since the commencement of the RCS program,” said minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha.
Regional air connectivity has become a priority in the mountainous region of the northeast bordering China due to a poor road network. The RCS, introduced less than two years ago, offers a string of initiatives, including fare subsidies and relief from taxes to airlines flying to the auctioned routes. It has received a further boost with the Indian Air Force’s modernization of numerous airfields in far-flung mountainous areas of the northeast under the Modernization of Airfield Infrastructure (MAFI) program in India.
MAFI has done much to boost the confidence of pilots worried about winter conditions. “Our capability to land in low visibility has improved a lot,” air chief marshal B.S. Dhanoa told AIN. Improved conditions now allow commercial turboprops and narrowbodies to land on the runways, thereby boosting tourism.
TATA Power leads the $293 million project and works with Raytheon as an implementation partner. Upgrades include integration of a Cat II ILS, airfield lighting systems, and high- and low-power VOR/DME systems.
The RCS will get a further boost as Phase 2 MAFI, which includes 37 bases, takes effect. Officials expect Phase 2 to include Srinagar and Leh, both tourist destinations in the north likely to attract regional airlines.
"The RCS has provided a big thrust to opening new routes and making them viable,” TruJet CEO Vishok Mansingh told AIN. “The subsidy sustains the market for three years and stimulates it as there are no pullouts by the airline.”