[Exclusive] What Ails the Civil Helicopter Industry?
The helicopter industry needs support from the government in the form of suitable policies and an enabling environment in terms of infrastructure and capacity. A little handholding and some incentives will enable the helicopter industry to spread its wings across the country and bring expansive advantages to the nation through its numerous economic spin-offs.
Photo Credit : https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/hal-plans-to-produce-apache-like-military-helicopter-in-india/articleshow/74426550.cms,
Even as India is projected to be the 3rd largest economy by 2030 its race to emerge as the 5th largest economy in the world has seen a setback on account of the ongoing pandemic. Infrastructure and connectivity have been important elements of the growth of the economy. The civil aviation industry has boomed, and Indian has emerged as the 3rd largest domestic market and the fastest growing market in terms of domestic tickets sold for its airline industry. However, an important component of the civil aviation industry, the helicopter industry does not seem to have participated in the growth.
The origin of the Indian civil helicopter industry can be dated all the way back to the year 1953 when the first civil helicopter had flown. India currently has less than 1% of the global fleet of civilian helicopters. From its peak in 2013, the fleet has steadily declined to merely 245 registered helicopters in 2019. A very telling nugget of information is that Sao Paulo the largest city in Brazil has more than 400 helicopters in operation. Our helicopter industry has been stunted.
The ongoing pandemic has delivered a double whammy to the industry. During the initial three months of the lockdown, the entire industry was shut down after which very restrictive and limited capacity utilization was allowed. With little revenue and ongoing costs, it is expected that many small players in the helicopter industry will close down by the time this pandemic is behind us.
In spite of many useful and sui generis capabilities of helicopters such as operating and landing in mountainous regions, seas, and open fields or on rooftops, the merits are not adequately appreciated by relevant authorities.
Over the years the regulations for civil aviation have become industry-friendly and forward-looking and results of which are clearly reflected in the state of the industry. However, the authorities have been almost blind to the existence of the rotary segment. Given the nature of operations and the unit, costs involved norms applicable to the fixed-wing machines cannot be applied to helicopters. From airport charges to taxation and regulatory compliance costs, helicopters and aeroplanes need to be treated independently. Take for instance the rates for Fixed Base Operator (FBO) services which are calculated based on the Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW). While the fare projections make sense for fixed wings and the load they carry, a rotary craft in comparison weighs less than an aircraft and can accommodate far fewer passengers during its journeys.
Even while flying, helicopters are expected to follow norms similar to those laid out for fixed winged aircrafts such as obtaining prior permissions and clearances to land. Many countries including China allow civil helicopters to fly without prior ATC clearance in non-controlled airspace and below 5000 feet during emergency situations. Although National Civil Aviation Policy issued by the Government in the year 2016 envisaged that helicopters will be free to fly from point to point without prior ATC clearance in airspace below 5000 feet and in areas other than controlled airspace, prohibited and restricted ones, etc., however, the same is yet to be implemented.
The enabling infrastructure such as helipads and heliports has been grossly missing in our vast and poorly interconnected country and there seems to be no plan to enhance this fundamental requirement. Setting up helipads barely needs investments; it is more about demarcating the surface – on building tops, barren land, and Macadam or Butimunious tops. Even building a heliport can be done at a fraction of the cost required for a small airport.
The helicopter industry largely lacks skilled manpower. From pilots to technicians there is a shortage of qualified personnel even though retired pilots from the defence services somewhat fill the gap in-flight crew requirement. The training and skill-building capacity for the helicopter industry is scarce. The miserable state of the helicopter industry keeps it from attracting suitable talent and from inviting investments to create the supporting infrastructure.
Even during the COVID pandemic the measures announced by the government to ameliorate the hardships from the lockdown did not factor in the unique requirements of the helicopter industry.
Even as the utility of helicopters is immense, for the economy to benefit and the helicopter industry to flourish the change should begin with gathering some mindshare of the authorities – Ministry of Civil Aviation and the DGCA. The helicopter industry needs support from the government in the form of suitable policies and an enabling environment in terms of infrastructure and capacity. A little handholding and some incentives will enable the helicopter industry to spread its wings across the country and bring expansive advantages to the nation through its numerous economic spin-offs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house
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