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Civil Aviation Ministry working to start flight services from small towns

Economic Times:  November, 2016

New Delhi: In a few years, a passenger from Ramnad may not have to make a 10-hour train journey to Chennai or a road trip to Madurai airport to fly abroad. He or she can take a nine-seater aircraft from Ramnad and fly to Madurai or Trichy , and then board a connecting flight to Mumbai, Delhi, or the rest of the world.

Flying between small towns is going to be the norm if the ministry of civil aviation has its way in developing regional connectivity. In Tamil Nadu, more than 14 unused airstrips and a few underserved airports have been identified for this purpose.These include airstrips in Arakkonam, Chettinad, Cholavaram, Hosur, Kayatar, Neyveli, Ramnad, Salem, Sulur, Thanjavur, Ullundurpet and Vellore. Some of these were built by the British during the Second World War, while others used to be private airstrips for the rich but are now defunct.

The airstrips could be used to fly nine-seater to 18-seater flights so that people from the hinterlands can have easy access to bigger airports, said Union minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha detailing the Centre's plan to develop air connectivity in the next 10 years.

The ministry is trying to encourage entrepreneurs to invest in these facilities for basic infrastructure if airlines show readiness to operate. Also, Airports Authority of India (AAI) has plans to develop small airports with frugal facilities. In the southern peninsula, the density of airports is high. There are eight airports with good passenger traffic. Th airstrips identified for development are scattered in such a way that these can connect people in remote areas to the existing airports. However, private airlines have to bid for these routes, which is likely to happen in December.

“Around nine crore people fly domestic and five crore people fly international,“ the minister said. “About 13 crore people travel by air-conditioned coaches on trains. People who have flown once will never want to travel by train as flights are faster and airports are well maintained. But our idea is to make hawaichappalwalas (people who wear slippers, i.e. the common man) fly,“ Sinha said.

To make that happen, the ministry is mulling fare caps.Fares of these flights will not be subject to levies or charges imposed by airport operators. As per the initial estimates, the fares will be between Rs 1,400 and Rs 3,500. Also, unlike regular flight tickets whose prices go up as the departure date approaches, fares of regional flights will not shoot up beyond the cap. A senior AAI official said there was a huge demand from passengers for flights as trains were inadequate. “ A large number of people who fly to Southeast Asia and the Middle East come from Madurai and Trichy. The fare cap and the subsidy for three years will make flying cheaper between these smaller towns,“ he said.