Interview with Jyotiraditya M. Scindia: “Our ultimate goal is to make air travel accessible and affordable to all”

Jyotiraditya Madhavrao
Scindia, Union Minister,
Ministry of Civil Aviation

The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) is taking several measures to make air travel a mode of mass transport for citizens. In fact, the post-pandemic recovery of the sector has been much faster in India than in several other countries, owing to strong government support. Going forward, enhancing re­gional connectivity, developing mega greenfield airports, and making world-class passenger services available at affordable rates will be the key focus areas for MoCA. In an interview with Indian Infrastructure, Jyotiraditya Madhavrao Scindia, Union Minister, Ministry of Civil Aviation, talks about the ministry’s priorities and the way forward for the sector…

How has the civil aviation sector evolved over the past 25 years? What have been the noteworthy achievements?

Twenty years ago, in the early 2000s, flying was a luxury for most and was thus limited to the upper classes. There were few airports and even fewer airlines. Fast forward 20 years, and the situation has changed 180 degrees, especially in the past decade. Liber­ali­sation, a booming economy, a rapidly expanding middle class and a visionary leadership have all contri­buted to this growth.

Our government believes in a “monumental” app­roach to growth instead of an “incremental” approa­ch. In the past nine years, 75 new airports, heliports and water aerodromes have been built – almost eight airports per year. This is remarkable considering that just 74 airports had been developed in India since Independence till 2014.

The idea of “Sab Ude, Sab Jude” led to the formation of the Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik programme – a regional connectivity scheme that has transformed the face of air travel in India. Under this, 485 routes have been operationalised, serving more than 12.7 million passengers. The most recent development was the inauguration of an airport in Utkela. As a government, we have also transformed policies and framed new ones to ensure ease of travel for passengers as well as ease of business for service providers (including airports, airlines and other stakeholders).

Drones, a new entrant in the civil aviation ecosystem, have already started making their mark. In order to fully realise their potential for the Indian economy, we have notified the New Drone Rules, 2021, under which several licences, fees and forms have been eliminated. As per the Drone Airspace Map, published in September 2021, 90 per cent of the country is now a green zone where no permission is required to operate a drone. The government has also come up with a production-linked incentive scheme for drones to promote their manufacturing in the country. The result of these efforts is visible on the ground – on the one hand, drones are delivering medicines in Manipur and Uttarakhand, and on the other, they are delivering daily use products such as newspapers in Chennai. E-commerce platforms such as Amazon and Swiggy are also testing drones to deliver their products in different parts of India.

Meanwhile, helicopters are unmatched in the ways they can be used for different connectivity roles. The HeliSewa online portal is being used by operators to obtain landing permissions on helipads. HeliDisha, the guidance material on helicopter operations for state administrations, has been distributed in 780 districts. The Helicopter Accelerator Cell is also fully active in resolving helicopter issues.

Recently, DigiYatra was launched at the Lucknow and Mumbai airports, and will soon be launched at Ahmedabad, Kochi, Jaipur and Guwahati airports, taking the total count to 13 airports. So far, DigiYatra has been used by a total of 5 million passengers, and the Digi Yatra mobile application has 2.72 million users.

Further, under the e-Governance of Civil Aviation (eGCA) project, a total of 298 services/functions of the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) have been brought online through the eGCA platform. It aims to provide transparency, accountability and ease of doing business through the digital transformation of DGCA processes and functions, improving service delivery. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security’s (BCAS) e-BCAS project envisages a “paperless office” to digitally automate all internal processes, while enabling external stakeholders to access BCAS systems and provide information digitally through a single-window system.

“The participation of the private sector will not only help promote investments but also improve the quality of services, efficiency and competitiveness.”

What are the key challenges facing the sector?

Aviation was one of the worst-hit sectors by the Covid-19 pandemic. We are still 20-25 per cent behind pre-Covid levels in terms of international passengers. The pandemic disrupted global supply chains, causing delays in procuring aircraft from international suppliers.

We have always had our international hubs situated outside India. Other countries serve as a transit hub to carry our international traffic. However, it is time for India to build its own hubs. The National Civil Aviation Policy, 2016 envisages that the government will enter into “open sky” agreements on a reciprocal basis with SAARC countries, as well as countries with territory located entirely beyond a 5,000 km radius of New Delhi. Unlimited flights above the existing bilateral rights will be allowed directly to and from major international airports within the country, as notified by MoCA from time to time. However, the points of call at other airports un­der the existing agreements will continue to be honoured till they are renegotiated. In accordance with this policy, 49 countries beyond 5,000 km of Delhi were offered open sky agreements in 2016. Till date, 20 countries beyond 5,000 km of Delhi have formalised open sky arrangements with India. The last such arrangement was done with Canada in 2022.

What are your views on private sector involvement in the sector?

I believe that the participation of the private sector will not only help promote investments but also improve the quality of services, efficiency and competitiveness. As a government, we operate as “partners” rather than “regulators”, and have formulated a competitive regulatory framework with minimal controls to encourage the entry and operation of private airlines/airports. Many regional airlines have come up, and airports in top metros are being run by private entities.

Back in 2021, only 12 states and union territories (UTs) were charging value-added tax (VAT) on aviation turbine fuel (ATF) in the 0-5 per cent range. Today, 28 states and UTs fall under this category, with three more under the 20 per cent category. Only five states are still charging VAT on ATF of over 23 per cent.

The number of flying training organisations has increased to 35 (with 54 bases) from 29 in June 2016. By December 2023, nine more ba­ses are likely to be added. This will ensure the training of more pilots, flight engineers, maintenance personnel, air-traffic controllers, etc.

I personally hold regular meetings with airlines, airports and aircraft owners to ensure that all stakeholders are working together. I be­lieve that to take the industry to newer heights, the private sector must look at new technology innovations for ease of travel.

What are the ministry’s current focus areas and future targets?

We are working on capacity enhancement at our metro airports. Our overall capacity is slated to rise from the current 221 MPPA to over 456 MPPA in the next decade or so. Delhi, Ben­galuru, Hyderabad and Chennai airports have all either undergone expansion or are undergoing expansion  to increase capacity. Greenfield airports in Jewar and Navi Mumbai will give a further impetus to capacity expansions in Delhi and Mumbai respectively. Over the last nine years, 11 greenfield airports have been operationalised (as against only three till 2014). Meanwhile, in-principle approval has been accorded for 11 greenfield airports, including Dholera and Hirasar in Gujarat. By 2024-25, we aim to take the total number of airports in the country to 220. Since 2014, four airports – Tirupati, Vijayawada, Ku­shinagar and Mopa – have been declared international airports, taking the total number of international airports in the country to 30.

Under the National Infrastructure Pipeline, a capex of over Rs 980 billion is likely to be incurred during the period 2019-20 to 2024-25, with the Airports Authority of India incurring approximately Rs 250 billion. The remaining expenditure shall be borne by airport developers in the public-private partnership mode. An expenditure of Rs 536.55 billion has already been incurred up to March 2023.

All these quantifiable targets will form the pillars of our ultimate goal, which is to make air travel accessible and affordable to all. I aspire to build not just one aviation hub but multiple aviation hubs across the nation.

“The government is ready to bring in regulatory measures, modify policy frameworks and initiate collaborations to ensure that India leads the race to become a global hub for aviation.”

What is your outlook for the sector? What, according to you, will be the key trends and themes that will shape the sector in the next 25 years?

This wave of innovation in the Indian aviation sector will surely impact the wider transport sector and, in turn, the Indian economy. In the futu­re, we will be moving people and packages not on­ly through big airplanes but also through ad­vanced and short-haul air mobility options such as electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft.

Technology and innovation will form the basis for future development.  India must also try to become a manufacturing hub and support the huge automation software demands. To meet aspirations, the industry will need infrastructure capable of supporting large volumes of take-offs and landings each day – “vertiports”.

I assure that the government is ready to bring in regulatory measures, modify policy frameworks and initiate collaborations to ensure that India leads the race to become a global hub for aviation.