Campaign race and a poll jam in the skies

File photo of Bombardier’s Learjet 75 Liberty.
File photo of Bombardier’s Learjet 75 Liberty.

Summary

  • There are about 130 India-registered business aircraft and a similar number of helicopters in the country. Ahead of the general elections, political parties have rented most of them. And one party has mopped up about 80% of the available inventory.

New Delhi: Sometime in August last year, a Cessna Citation Excel, a midsize business jet, landed in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. The aircraft stayed put for several weeks before it was first used. A politician had hired it from a private jet operator in Delhi to fly him around the state—Madhya Pradesh was due for legislative assembly elections in November. The politician had a tight campaign schedule and didn’t want to take a chance with last-minute jet bookings.

Another private operator rented out three more such jets, as political campaigns picked up pace in October.

“One evening, early October, the three private jets lined up to depart from Delhi. They were all headed to Bhopal," the operator, who didn’t want to be identified, said. “The number of aircraft used in any election is an indicator of how fiercely contested the polls are," the operator added.

In December, when the results were announced, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a two-thirds majority in the state.

The demand for business jets during the Madhya Pradesh election last year was just a trailer. Charter negotiations by political parties and politicians in anticipation of the 18th Lok Sabha elections began in December, about four months ahead of the polls. It will be held in seven phases between 19 April and 1 June. The results will be announced on 4 June.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation, Indian aviation’s regulatory body, currently does not allow election-related flying using foreign-registered aircraft.

“The negotiations started around December and through January and February, most of the bookings were finalized," said a person aware of the discussions. He didn’t want to be identified either.

The country has a total of about 130 India-registered aircraft and a similar number of helicopters. Top business jet operators who rent include VSR Ventures, Air Charter Services and Reliance Transport & Travels.

The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), Indian aviation’s regulatory body, currently does not allow election-related flying using foreign-registered aircraft. The demand is such that most business jets have now been mopped up by political parties. For private companies wanting to rent a jet for their executives to use, it is quite a struggle.

While corporates and individuals can use foreign-registered aircraft to fly within and outside India, the usage has several restrictions, particularly when it involves a military airfield. The charter company needs special permissions, not just for the aircraft but also the flight crew.

A corporate house with presence in Gujarat and Rajasthan attempted to book two Dassault Falcon business jets and three helicopters for a trip it was planning at the end of May to their facilities. The company failed to secure any aircraft, a private operator who didn’t want to be identified, said.

He added that operators are not in a position to take advance bookings now since they have little visibility on aircraft availability till about June.

People wave at Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s helicopter as he leaves after addressing a public meeting at Nawada, on Monday, 15 April.
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People wave at Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s helicopter as he leaves after addressing a public meeting at Nawada, on Monday, 15 April. (PTI)

Pay more

Even when companies are able to secure an aircraft, they have to pay more.

The rates, which started firming up since the assembly elections last year—apart from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and Mizoram held state polls in November 2023—have now gone through the roof. The demand-supply gap has spiked hourly rentals by as much as 40%-50% now compared to December last year. Last minute bookings could prove to be even more expensive. Compared to 2019, when general elections were last held, rates are up by even 200% in some cases. Demand for private flying shot up during the pandemic months, resulting in a reset of jet rentals.

“Charter rates for helicopters have gone up by up to 50% since every prominent leader uses them for travel beyond the state capitals," Rohit Mathur, founder and CEO of Heritage Aviation, a helicopter and aircraft charter company based in Delhi, said. “Also, the number of aircraft available for election flying has not effectively increased between 2019 and 2024, which has resulted in high rentals," he added.

“Rentals have increased by up to 40% primarily because of the demand-supply gap. A large number of the available fleet have been hired by political parties and only a few are available for others," said Santosh Sharma, co-founder and chief executive officer of Foresee Aviation, an air charter consultancy firm.

(Credit: Mint)
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(Credit: Mint)

The rate per hour for renting a Bell 407, a single-engine civil utility helicopter, has risen 43% since December to 2.5 lakh, while that of AgustaWestland 109S, a twin-engine helicopter, has increased by about 27% to 3.5 lakh. Rates for Beechcraft Super King Air 250, a civil aircraft, have spiked 57% to 2.75 lakh an hour.

Meanwhile, data from the Airports Authority of India, the body responsible for managing the country’s civil aviation infrastructure, hints at increased usage of private jets for election campaigns. In February this year, the latest data available, aircraft movements by non-scheduled operators shot up 6.9% over the same month last year. In contrast, in February 2023, such movements declined by 22% over the same month in 2022.

One takeoff and landing are counted as two aircraft movements. Non-scheduled operators, which includes planes used by very important persons (VVIPs), don’t have a pre-planned flying schedule unlike scheduled operators such as IndiGo or Air India.

Early start

General elections in India are once in a five-year opportunity for aircraft operators. Preparations for leasing their fleet out start early.

Many charter operators Mint spoke to said that they started servicing their fleet in November last year, ensuring that all flying equipment was in shape. Some companies advanced their service schedule by a couple of months. Any aircraft requires routine maintenance, which is after 100 or 200 hours of flying depending on the aircraft type. Most Indian operators have older generation planes in their kitty—these aircraft require more servicing.

“All major maintenance work is completed well before the campaigning starts," Rajesh Sahu, managing director and CEO of Aurea Aviation, an air charter service provider, said.

“In case an aircraft needs maintenance-related checks during the election period, the operator has to provide the political party with a substitute aircraft," an operator who didn’t want to be identified said.

Payment terms

Once the planes are ready, comes the next crucial moment for any operator—striking a deal with a political party. But they have a choice. Renting out aircraft to political parties during the election period implies steady income.

However, if they hold on to part of their fleet, they can take advantage of last-minute spikes in rentals, when corporates come asking.

This election season, a large number of operators have chosen the steady income option. According to data sourced from two industry watchers, about 90% of the aircraft and almost all helicopters have been pressed into election duty.

Political parties hire jets for the entire election period, committing to payments for a fixed number of hours per day, irrespective of the number of flights made by an aircraft, said one person involved in the business. He didn’t want to be quoted.

Earlier, payments for business jets were made in cash. Now, it is made through cheques.
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Earlier, payments for business jets were made in cash. Now, it is made through cheques. (istockphoto)

In this season, political parties are offering committed payments for two hours to four hours everyday. The number of hours depends on the type of the aircraft and also its demand. “An operator gets paid for 120 hours during a 60-day election period, irrespective of whether the aircraft is flying or not. That’s the minimum," said the operator quoted above.

A second change this season is the payment mode.“Earlier, a large part of the payment was made in cash. Now, it is made through cheques or transferred online. The BJP has taken a lead in making payments through cheque, etc.," said an aviation insider, who has seen the business evolve over many years.

The expert didn’t want to be identified either.

Who hires the most

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting in Tirunelveli ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting in Tirunelveli ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. (PTI)

The BJP also hires the most. India’s largest political party has booked about 80% of the total available aircraft, informed two people involved in election flying. They didn’t want to be identified.

People tracking the business jet industry said that the party follows a centralized policy when it comes to hiring charters. The BJP also has a large number of senior politicians—they are provided planes to fly. In contrast, in most other parties, only a few top leaders are provided charters, they said.

“The gap between the BJP and other parties has widened. Today, the BJP hires a much higher number of jets," said one of the persons quoted above.

The BJP did not respond to a clarification sought by Mint. Questions sent to the Indian National Congress on its private jet policy also remained unanswered.

Regional demand

During the 2019 elections, a regional political party from eastern India could not manage an aircraft in time for election campaigning. Other parties had already mopped up the supply. This time, the party, having learnt its lesson, planned early. It leased an Embraer Legacy 600, a business jet, and has stationed it in a city in the state.

Demand shoots up during the general elections mainly because there is demand from every political party —Rajesh Sahu

Apart from national parties, demand from regional parties is fuelling demand this election season and is further exacerbating the shortage of business jets.

“While state elections have an impact on demand, it is easier to manage since rallies are planned during the last phase of the elections," Sahu of Aurea Aviation said. “Demand shoots up during the general elections mainly because there is demand from every political party," he added.

Nonetheless, charter hiring by regional parties is less efficiently handled compared to how the BJP or the Congress party handles these operations. They start the negotiation process much later unlike their national counterparts.

“The requirements of a regional party are also less—they need fewer aircraft compared to a national party," said a charter operator.

Some smaller regional parties use single engine helicopters manufactured by Robinson Helicopter Company when flying junior leaders. DGCA rules currently mandate that senior politicians fly a twin-engine aircraft or helicopter—twin-engine planes are considered safer.

Considering the demand-supply situation, smaller parties won’t have options anyway.

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