Will govt’s efforts give regional aviation a lift?

AK Sachdev | Updated on September 02, 2021

While the amended AERA Act is a positive, out-of-the-box solutions may also be required

A noteworthy facet of Parliament’s Monsoon Session was the characteristically stubborn refusal of the government to discuss the Pegasus exposé and its Indian context. This led to a situation where no other discussion could take place either, as the Opposition was hell bent on cornering the government on Pegasus before anything else.

However, the impasse did not prevent the Lok Sabha from passing 12 Bills in 10 days with an average discussion of less than seven minutes on each (as described in Derek O’Brien’s famous tweet comparing passing legislation to making papri chaat). One of the Bills was the Airports Economic Regulatory Authority (AERA) of India (Amendment) Bill 2021 which the Lok Sabha passed on July 29 and the Rajya Sabha on August 4.

It had been introduced in the last session of the Parliament but was referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee which submitted its report on July 22 (as the Monsoon Session started). The Bill aims at amending the AERA Act 2008, which empowers AERA to regulate tariff and other aeronautical charges at “major airports”.

To meet major airport criteria, an airport must have (or be designated to have) annual passenger throughput in excess of 35 lakh; the Act also empowers the government to designate “any other airport” as major airport by a notification.

Major airport

The amendment Bill seeks to modify the scope of the term major airport by adding after “any other airport” the words “or a group of airports”. Consequent to that amendment, AERA will be able to determine tariff and other charges for aeronautical services levied at small airports by grouping them together into one entity for the purpose of aeronautical charges.

This may sound a bit mystifying but carries a big potential benefit for flights to regional and remote airports. Smaller airports with low or nil traffic may now be developed through the stratagem of their being clubbed with the profitable ones as the amendment is expected to lure private investment into airports with poor potential for return on investment because of the lure of other lucrative, profit-making airports they are clubbed with.

In a way, this Bill will undo what was brought into effect by the AERA Amendment Bill 2019 which increased the annual passenger figure criteria for ‘major airports’ from 15 lakh to 35 lakh thus effectively taking out 16 of the 32 airports then qualifying to be major airports. The government can be seen as making all efforts to bolster regional aviation.

Air connectivity to many Tier-2/Tier-3 airports has not really taken off despite UDAN, a scheme specifically devised to aid and assist regional aviation. The enactment of this Bill as an Act may be expected to provide a spur to flights to un-served and under-served airports.

Perhaps the time has come for the government to introspect on why regional aviation is not taking off despite the government’s vocalising its ambition in that direction and launching schemes like UDAN and Scheduled Commuter Airline Permits. With a new, young Minister of Civil Aviation at the helm, the Ministry could think out of the box, depart from its bureaucratic approach to the trials and tribulations of regional aviation, and do something different.

Setting up a study group comprising entirely of airline and airport experts with no bureaucrat on its composition would be one step that would approach the problem from the demand end. This initiative is well within the Minister’s powers and holds the promise of germinating some new ideas that could bring avante-garde concepts that may be unexpected and yet practical; these may turn regional aviation around.

The writer is Group Captain (Retired)

Published on September 01, 2021

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