BUSINESS JETS ON HIGH DEMAND
Around 130 air charter service operators across the country are having a "boom time" making "handsome profit" due to extensive use of helicopters and business jets by parties like BJP and Congress for electioneering, dubbed as most expensive in India's history. The sector's turn-around is significant as it was reporting negative growth of two per cent in the past two years. The business has increased by over 35-40 per cent in the last two months, mainly due to hiring of the flying machines by the politicos for the campaigning, Industry sources said the parties and individual politicos are roughly spending Rs 350-400 crore to criss-cross the country in chartered planes during campaign for the world's biggest democratic exercise spread over two months. So far BJP's prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has clocked maximum number of flying hours to campaign for the party followed by Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi, experts in the industry said. An industry insider said BJP was the top spender so far in using choppers and business jets. A number of operators said there has been scramble for aircraft in this election season as availability of the business jets and choppers have outpaced the demand, triggering a huge surge in rates. Secretary of Business Aircraft Operator's Association R K Bali said the sector was witnessing negative growth of two per cent in the last two years but business has seen impressive growth as leading parties hit an aggressive campaign trail. "This is the only boom time in the air charter services industry. Otherwise they are struggling in India as the aircraft are mostly under utilised," said Bali. According to DGCA figures, around 130 non-scheduled aircraft operators are in the business currently out of which around 40 are big operators having four to five private jets which ferry people abroad also. They are operating around 520 aircraft and choppers. Captain G R Gopinath, the pioneer of low-cost airline in India and promoter of Deccan Charters, said election was a good time for the air charter industry as they were making "hay" when the "sun was shining". "It is more visible because of the glamour, sound and furry that surround a chopper or a business jet... Even after hopping in and out of choppers and jets, national leaders like Modi and Rahul may not be able to cover more than 200 constituencies," he told.According to experts, long-term lease contracts of flying hours with operators are usually negotiated by major parties well in advance as the rates go up significantly during the peak campaign time. The operators usually charge Rs 70,000 to 75,000 per flying hour for a four-seater single engine chopper while business jets cost Rs 2.5-3 lakh per hour but the rates have increased significantly due to surge in demand. "This is a desperate situation. At times, it's a question of prestige also," said Bali, indicating the 'tight' situation. Gautam Sahani of Subha Aviation said increased spending by the top players is helping the sector to a great extent. The increased frequency by chartered flights has significantly helped earnings by airports across the country as they charge fees for landing, take-off and parking. Similarly, the aircraft maintenance firms are also having a "decent share" of the business as increased flying hours means good upkeep of the aircraft. Bali said infrastructure growth was critical for encouraging the sector as choppers and small aircraft was the only medium of travel to some fur-flung areas of the country. "The government has been following the policy of one size fits all. They must understand that what is applicable to a scheduled airline is not applicable to non-scheduled operators," he said.