Indian Helicopter Operators Find Little To Cheer About

 - September 4, 2013, 3:10 AM
Despite tough times, India’s Nirma Group took delivery of an AgustaWestland GrandNew light twin outfitted in full VIP configuration.

Even as the presence of helicopter OEMs doubled in India (to 10 from five), double-digit growth in its civil helicopter fleet in the seven years preceding 2011 gave way to negative growth last year when the fleet reduced from 293 to 266.

High operational costs, exacerbated by a depreciated rupee that fell 35 percent in the past 40 months, are posing challenges for the industry. “It’s a cumulative result of lack of optimum utilization, safety performance, infrastructure constraints and regulatory issues,” said K. Sridharan, president of the Rotary Wing Society of India (RWSI).

The cost-related issues of the helicopter industry range from micro to macro even as the RWSI has called for a rationalization of regulatory costs to mitigate the financial burden imposed on operators. To reduce costs, the industry is seeking to extend the period between required recurrent simulator training to five years from two; rationalize pilot competency checks; reduce charges for landing, security, ground handling, hangarage and parking; and cap tariffs for aviation turbine fuel. These are being addressed in a new Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) for helicopters, expected to be released within three months, Ashok Kumar, Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, told AIN. While welcoming the announcement, but the industry believes implementation needs to be accelerated, said Sridharan.

“The root of our problem is our regulatory environment, which is out of sync with the aviation environment….Instead of simple regulations, we have complex rules with a lot of discretionary powers,” said Baijayant Jay Panda, a member of parliament who is also a helicopter pilot.

Meanwhile, helicopter sales within the country are ailing and an OEM representative told AIN that, with no domestic demand, Indian operators are selling pre-owned helicopters to foreign buyers. Even government-owned Pawan Hans, which operates a mixed fleet of 47 helicopters, has been slow to buy two training helicopters, having cancelled its request for proposal three times.

Establishing a New Market

“Helicopters in India are being used as if they are fixed-wing aircraft, and are not being exploited for their versatility….Regulations for emergency medical services, airborne law enforcement and maintenance and washing power lines do not exist. India does not have a single heliport or licensed helipad,” lamented Sridharan. OSS Air Management purchased two AW109s with the intention of launching an HEMS operation, but those plans came to naught as the company was contracted only once–during the 2011 Formula One Grand Prix on the outskirts of Delhi.

“More than 175,000 people in India die in road accidents annually. Lives could be saved if there were an [insurance] policy for aerial evacuation,” said Sridharan.

While the bulk of commercial flying is out of Mumbai for offshore operations, heli-charters for pilgrimages–novel to India–to temples tucked in high remote altitudes are catching up quickly. Each helicopter flies approximately 80 hours per month, with 10 to 12 short sorties a day. “There is a need to popularize their role, have licensed helipads, and allow night landings at airports with lights,” added Sridharan.