Mumbai / New Delhi: The finalization of the government’s new civil aviation policy has witnessed another delay, but Kingfisher Airlines Ltd has a Plan B in place should one of the policy’s more contentious provisions—which will effectively allow Indian carriers to fly abroad ahead of the currently mandatory minimum five-year flying experience norm—not go through. Kingfisher is two years old.
The second meeting of a Union group of ministers (GoM) given the responsibility of finalizing a new civil aviation policy, scheduled for Monday, has been postponed by more than two weeks to mid-September with the ongoing Indo-US nuclear deal taking centre stage for the government, a senior civil aviation ministry official said.
The policy was referred to the GoM, headed by external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee, by the Union cabinet for deliberation after opposition cropped up to some key changes to current aviation rules in it, including the controversial proposal to open international skies for more Indian airlines. Currently, only the government-owned Air India Ltd and private sector firm Jet Airways (India) Ltd are allowed to fly abroad.
Kingfisher, controlled by the United Breweries group headed by millionaire Vijay Mallya, has expressed its interest in flying abroad as soon as it can and has even placed orders for long-haul planes to fly international routes.
Civil aviation minister Praful Patel has suggested in the past that the five-year norm should be removed and international routes be opened up on a case-to-case basis.
Kingfisher’s Mallya, however, claimed that his airline will anyway become eligible to operate international flights next year. UB acquired a controlling stake in Air Deccan earlier this year. Mallya said that Kingfisher will start operating non-stop flights between India and the US and Europe from August next year when Air Deccan completes its fifth year of operations.
“Air Deccan and Kingfisher Airlines are now one carrier for all practical purposes and since the government has not specified the colour or logo of the aircraft, it’s up to the company to decide that which airplane to fly on the international services,” Mallya said. “The government cannot insist that the aircraft should carry a logo of two-hands (Air Deccan’s logo) instead of a bird (Kingfisher’s logo),” Mallya added.
The first GoM meeting last month was cut short owing to paucity of time. Mukherjee has been otherwise engaged, as he is also the government’s point man to defuse oppostion to the Indo-US civil nuclear deal. The next meeting is likely to be held on 20 September.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting that has now been rescheduled, Communist Party of India (CPI) general secretary and member of Parliament A.B. Bardhan opposed the relaxation of international flight norms in a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh saying that the rule was being relaxed just to favour a particular airline. Bardhan’s letter did not, however, name the airline.
The first GoM meeting saw railways minister Lalu Prasad and law minster H.R. Bharadwaj opposing the relaxation. Both the CPI and Prasad’s party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, are key allies of the Congress-led Union government.
The opposition by the ministers and the CPI member of Parliament to the scrapping of the rule could delay the policy, said one senior civil aviation ministry official familiar with the matter. The official did not wish to be named.
Neither Air Deccan nor Kingfisher Airlines currently has aircraft that can operate on long-haul routes. In 2006, Kingfisher placed firm orders for five Airbus A380s, five Airbus A-330s, five 340s and five Airbus A350s for use on long-range international and regional services. Kingfisher Airlines will take delivery of its first widebodied aircraft, an Airbus A 340-500, in March 2008. Air Deccan has not placed orders for any widebodied aircraft.
According to an executive at Kingfisher who did not wish to be identified, the airline has three options: “First option is to start overseas operations under the Kingfisher brand after securing approval from Indian government. The second and third options are to start the US operations through a subsidiary floated in that country, or to use Air Deccan’s licence when it completes five years of operation.”