Anil Kumar finally has some work to do as the Uttar Pradesh elections take centre stage. As the lone guard at the Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar Hawai Patti, an airstrip in Meerut, 40 km east from New Delhi, Kumar has to make sure the state politicians are served tea and water on time when they land to address public meetings in this part of the state.
In the last six years that he’s been employed at the airstrip, Kumar has spent most of his time in front of a black and white television set and occasionally ventured out to a market, a kilometre away from the two-acre airfield to buy groceries and place a call to his family in Lucknow.
Since it was built a decade ago, the airstrip—one in dozen in the state—has been used just about 60 times. The unvaried routine at Meerut is mirrored at over 300 Indian airstrips that lie unused.
Not for very much longer, though. With an airline boom fuelling a shortage of pilots in India, these airstrips are heading for makeovers. That’s because private pilot training centres are aggressively bidding for some of them to start flight schools even as state governments are ready to lease them out.
Ahmedabad Aviation & Aeronautics Ltd, one of the oldest private pilot schools in the country, is migrating to Mehsana, a district in north Gujarat, after 15 years of training at its current base at the S.V. Patel International Airport in Ahmedabad.
“For us to continue to have uninterrupted use of the airstrip and not hamper the growing traffic at the Ahmedabad airport, it is imperative to have a dedicated airstrip for our expanding flying operations,” says the training company’s chief executive Mahendra Vyas, who will leave a flight simulator behind at Ahmedabad.
Vyas is in talks with the governments of Orissa and Rajasthan to set up new academies on existing airstrips in those states, as he eyes the expansion of his academy, which today churns out about 120 student pilots every year.
Elsewhere, students at Yash Air School have already shifted to a new airfield that the Indore training centre has leased at the tourist hub of Ujjain. New Delhi-based chartered carrier Club One Air is hunting for a similar airstrip in the adjoining states of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan to launch a pilot school by the year-end, says its managing director Manav Singh.
What is attracting these schools to adopt deserted strips even in remote towns is the rising costs and tightening government regulations at airports in the bigger cities, which are getting crowded as India’s nine airlines add more flights on the country’s aviation map.
Also, with the Union civil aviation ministry projecting a need for at least 5,000 new pilots in India, the flying schools see a big opportunity in expanding their pilot training capacity.
Setting up a captive airstrip is not an option for pilot schools, as it can cost up to Rs15 crore, excluding the cost of land. Government permissions can take years coming, for instance.
“Constructing a private airfield is a cumbersome process. Six years after Amby Valley (an upmarket residential township near Mumbai) went for its own airstrip, they still haven’t got the necessary government permissions,” says Yash Tongia, chief flying instructor at Yash Air.
Add the incentives offered by state governments, which want to see their airstrips revived, and the decision is made for the training school managements. Gujarat, for example, is spending Rs80 lakh on infrastructure at the Mehsana airstrip which will help it make it compatible to standards laid down by a government regulator before the airfield can handle short-range planes. New hangars, instructor residences and student hostels will also come up, which the government hopes will generate additional local jobs when operations begin later this month.
Low leasing costs at the airstrips are a bonus. Yash Air will lease the Ujjain airstrip for just Rs20 lakh per annum as lease rental for a five-year period and pay another Rs40 lakh for yearly maintenance of the airstrip.
Even with an initial development cost of Rs3 crore for setting up hangars, night landing facilities and related infrastructure, the average start-up cost for it will be about Rs3.6 crore—just a third of the money needed to set up a fresh airstrip. At Ujjain, Yash Air expects to train 90 pilots a year.
The leased airstrip will also add airport revenues to Yash Air each time a chartered plane carrying tourists lands at the holy town. Government aircraft are allowed free usage of the airstrip.
Yet, most airstrips in the country are unlikely to find such suitors. “It is difficult to go to towns with less than five lakh population because flying instructors, used to a metro lifestyle, are not willing to work there,” says Yash Air’s Tongia.
Example: Rae Bareli’s Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Uran Akademi, which has a shortage of eight new instructors. But despite multiple advertisements, few want to work here, leaving the school with just four trainers. That, says retired Air Vice-Marshal S.C. Malhan, who now heads the academy, is partly because airlines are willing to pay three times what the state-run school can pay.
Too many pilot schools chasing a dwindling number of trainer-pilots, who find flying passenger jets more lucrative, is leading to higher salaries for such pilots at the training centres.
To meet hiked salaries, most aviation academies have already increased their fees by 12.5% this year. The training fee for a commercial pilot licence, which takes up to 18 months, has gone up to Rs18 lakh from Rs16 lakh at most private institutes in thecountry.