Northeast's grand UDAN: 24 routes identified in Assam under newest phase

As part of increasing regional connectivity, the Airports Authority of India has identified nine places in Assam where infrastructure will be built

Northeast's grand UDAN: 24 routes identified in Assam under newest phase
Passengers boarding a plane from Guwahati Airport in Assam. Image Courtesy: Twitter/@CMOfficeAssam

Tourism and air connectivity are going to witness a huge boost in the Northeastern state of Assam as the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has identified 24 new routes under the first phase of UDAN 4.0.

As part of increasing regional connectivity, the Airports Authority of India (AAI) has identified nine places in Assam where infrastructure will be built. This includes airports in Jorhat, Lilabari, Tezpur and Rupsi. Heliports will be constructed in Nagaon, Misa and Geleki and water aerodromes will be built at the Guwahati Riverfront and Umrangso Reservoir.

“AAI has identified 24 routes in Assam under the first phase of UDAN 4. The selected airline operators (SAOs) under UDAN are obligated to commence RCS flight operations on an RCS route within a period of six months from the issuance of the letter of award or within two months from the readiness of airport, whichever is later unless any extension is granted by the implementing agency,” Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said in Lok Sabha on February 4.

Also read: Why UDAN 4.0 is a massive boost for Atmanirbhar Bharat

The implementing agency AAI has disbursed Rs 79.6 lakh as viability gap funding (VGF) to SAOs so far for operating UDAN flights in Assam.. 

In August last year, Puri announced that 78 new routes had been approved under the fourth round of the Regional Connectivity Scheme—Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik (RCS-UDAN) to expand connectivity to the remote and treacherous terrains of the hilly regions of India

"UDAN 4.0 is ready to go. Seventy-eight additional routes have now been approved, taking the total number of sanctioned routes to 766. 18 unserved/underserved airports would be connected to metro cities like Delhi, Kolkata, Kochi, etc," Puri tweeted.

Meanwhile, Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal on February 4 inaugurated the state’s first heliport in Majuli district. Positioning Majuli as an important tourist destination, Sonowal said that the heliport would significantly facilitate tourist flow. 

Also read: Guwahati airport plans major capacity boost with Icarus-inspired new terminal

Assam’s first heliport in Majuli district has the capacity to host simultaneous landing of three helicopters. The heliport was constructed at an estimated cost of Rs 50 lakh to boost tourism in the world’s largest river island.

UDAN, launched on October 21, 2016, is an innovative scheme to develop the regional aviation market and ensure last-mile connectivity and affordable air travel for the common man in small towns. It is a market-based mechanism in which airlines bid for seat subsidies. 

The scheme UDAN envisages providing connectivity to unserved and underserved airports of the country through the revival of existing airstrips and airports. The scheme was planned to be in operation for a period of 10 years. The priority areas under the scheme are the Northeastern Region (NER), hilly states and islands.

UDAN has a unique market-based model to develop regional connectivity. Interested airline and helicopter operators can start operations on hitherto unconnected routes by submitting proposals to the implementing agency. The operators could seek a VGF apart from getting various concessions.

All such route proposals would then be offered for competitive bidding through a reverse bidding mechanism and the route would be awarded to the participant quoting the lowest VGF per seat.

The operator submitting the original proposal would have the Right of First Refusal on matching the lowest bid in case his original bid is within 10% of the lowest bid.

The successful bidder would then have exclusive rights to operate the route for a period of three years. Such support would be withdrawn after the three-year period, as by that time, the route is expected to become self-sustainable.

Also read: 4-seater air taxi that can change the way Indians travel

The SAOs have to provide a minimum of nine and a maximum of 40 dedicated seats (at subsidised rates) on fixed-wing aircraft and 5 to 13 seats on helicopters for operating UDAN flights. On such routes, the frequency of departures has been fixed between three to seven per week. Route networks would also be encouraged to achieve economies of scale and optimal usage of aircraft.

The fare for a one-hour journey of about 500 km on a fixed-wing aircraft or for a 30-minute journey on a helicopter would be capped at Rs 2,500, with proportionate pricing for routes of different stage lengths/flight duration.

This would be achieved through a financial stimulus in the form of concessions from Central and state governments and airport operators and VGF to the interested airlines to kick-off operations so that the fares are kept affordable.

SAOs can enter into codesharing arrangements with domestic as well as international airlines pursuant to applicable regulations and prevailing air service agreements.

For incumbent airlines, the scheme gives the promise of new routes and more passengers while for and startup carriers, there is the opportunity of a new and scalable business. Airport operators and original equipment manufacturers were expected to see brisk business. 

A Regional Connectivity Fund (RCF) was envisaged for meeting the VGF requirements. The RCF levy per departure was planned to be applied to certain domestic flights.

According to the UDAN plan, the partner state governments (other than Northeastern states and Union Territories where the contribution will be 10%) were required to contribute 20% to this fund. For balanced regional growth, the allocations under the scheme were to be equitably spread across the five geographical regions of the country  -- north, west, south, east and northeast.

Concessions would also be provided for cargo operations under the scheme, but such flights are not eligible for VGF.