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Monday, Jul 01, 2002

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As charters take off...

Aziz Haider

The rich and famous increasingly use chartered aircraft for business and pleasure. Aziz Haider takes a look at how this sector is poised to grow.

A CEO of a US-based multinational landed at Delhi, with a prior request to a charter operator to position an aircraft at Delhi. After spending the day attending board meetings and a high-profile dinner, he took a flight to Bangalore, early next morning. The aircraft waited as he attended a few meetings. The same evening, he flew to Mumbai for dinner with the head of an Indian multinational, following which he took the regular flight back to the US.

When Manuel J. Rodriguez, 49, a French national, injured himself while vacationing in Goa, he was rushed to the Goa Medical College, the nearest hospital. Despite the state-of-the-art facilities at the hospital, Rodriguez insisted that he be sent to Paris to be attended by his family doctor. Even under normal circumstances, it was a tall order and coming as it did at 8 p.m, many logistical hurdles had to be crossed. So, the doctors decided to seek expert help and called up East West Rescue Centre, a Delhi-based organisation that specialises in search-and-rescue operations, which contacted India International Airways, a charter air service. Soon, a Cessna Citation was sent to ferry Rodriguez to Delhi in time to board a 4.30 a.m. flight to Paris.

These are not the only activities air charters have to deal with. Charter business in India is witnessing an upsurge in innovative ways it is put to use. Apart from corporate charters, these aircraft are used by foreign tourists, VIPs and for missions such as medical evacuation, agricultural spraying, film shooting, heli-tourism, adventure sports, heli-skiing, off-shore logistics, electronic news gathering, under slung operations, geo-physical surveys, aerial reconnaissance and other customised applications such as political campaigns, golfing/fishing trips and search operations.

Bill Gates and Steven Seagel used them to travel within the country when they visited India. Media crews flew in them to reach the devastated sites when Gujarat was rocked. Charters have come as a boon for those who are always ahead of time. Rather than remaining dependent on conventional airline schedules, they give flexibility to fly anytime and anywhere across the country. The spacious seating arrangement and accompanying luxuries on board ensures that you are not cramped for leg-space and wanting for entertainment. What's more important, you reach your destination in style.

"The advantage of charter flying is that you can travel anywhere you wish, anytime you desire," says Wing Cdr. M.Y. Khan, Executive Director, India International Airways Ltd., a Thapar group company that introduced air-taxi services in the Indian skies in 1990. "For if you have the money you want to fly first class," endorses Group Captain Jotwani of Oberoi Corporate Aviation, which is regarded as the company that provides maximum amenities to enhance your comfort and style.

Gautam Singhania's Million Air is another major player in the market offering charter services for executive travel segment, emergency stretcher services, aerial sight-seeing tours, joyrides, aerial surveys, visits to places of pilgrimage and film shootings.

Emergency medical evacuation is increasing in demand as people with money and resources are opting for the best and quickest way to reach quality medical aid. While airline provide stretcher facility, companies such as Dr Bhardwaj's Goodmans Rescue or Dr Chawla's East West Rescue Centre provides medical team and equipments and co-ordinate the entire operations.

Dr Trehan of Escorts owns a personnel helicopter that is being used to airlift emergency patients, while Apollo and Manipal Hospitals too regularly hire the services of Deccan Aviation Pvt. Ltd., a leading player in the charter industry. Lt. Col. Bhutani of Deccan Aviation feels that it is the helicopter's capability of reaching inaccessible areas that makes it vital during emergencies. Besides being used for medical evacuation and emergency rescue and disaster management, Deccan Aviation's choppers have been used for a wide range of services. These include aerial filming for TWI and Discovery Channel, power line surveys and offshore logistic support to National Grid, Cairn Energy (UK) and BHEL and aerial reconnaissance for National Geophysical Research Institute and International Sea Ports India.

If you think this is all these planes can do, there's more! At the time when Indian Scientific Expedition reached Antarctica, Pawan Hans helicopters provided the crucial aviation support. These aircraft are also being used for a wide range of operations ranging from oil rig support to ONGC & Hardy Exploration, pipelines surveillance for Oil India and assisting companies like NHPC and GAIL in production activities.

Increasingly, more and more charter services are being used for tourist purposes. There are several high-spending tourists for whom waiting at the departure and arrival lounges of airports is a big no-no. For such groups looking for a weekend getaway, hiring your own aircraft means that the comfort and hassle-free convenience compensates for the extra cost. The trend has caught only now in India, though the number of such cases is impressive and growing.

Government-owned Pawan Hans too is planning to put more of its choppers for purely tourist purposes. The company has started a unique helicopter service in Sikkim to enable the tourists to view the mighty Himalayas of the region from high altitude.

Several other companies have got into using helicopters for promotion of tourism. So much so that special packages too are offer. A whirlwind chopper flight from Mumbai takes the tourists to witness the mystique of the Ajanta and Ellora caves and the unspoiled beauty of Lonavala. Chopper rides out of the Garden City of Bangalore are also available to experience the pristine environment and lush surroundings of Kabini Jungle Lodge or Cauvery Fishing Camp.

Not to forget an inspiring low flight to the historic city of Mysore, along with the option of visits to the monolithic splendour of Belur and Halebid temples or a short flight to the Satya Sai Baba Ashram. From Hyderabad, you can take off to the placid waters surrounding the ancient Buddhist civilisation of Nagarjuna Konda. Similarly, a chopper soars above the dense forests of Thekkadi from Chennai to the expansive lagoons of Kerala and the misty mountaintops of Ooty and Kodaikanal. Adds Ratta of Million Air: "I would also like to add that slowly, a new trend has emerged and we have observed that helicopters are being used on valentine's day, birthdays, marriage anniversaries by many, as surprise gift."

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