The civilian helicopter sector got a shot in the arm when in October 2021 the Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia announced a new helicopter policy at the Helicopter Summit organised by the industry body FICCI in Dehradun. Under this policy besides many other norms dedicated hubs and corridors would be established and landing charges and parking deposits abolished to boost commercial helicopter operations in the country.
Under the new policy, the government will put together a dedicated helicopter acceleration cell in the Civil Aviation Ministry that will look at helicopter industry's issues. As part of the policy there will be no landing charges or parking deposits for heliports or helicopter companies. To begin with four Heli Hubs and Training Units will be set up in Mumbai, Guwahati, Delhi, and Bengaluru and helicopter corridors will be set up in 10 cities and 82 routes in the country.
Experts with whom THE WEEK spoke found that the helicopter policy and development of heli hubs is the need of the hour to give a push to the slow moving civilian helicopter sector in the country. The civil aviation market is growing at a rapid pace in the country and has drawn many aviation giants towards India as many business class people are ending up buying their own personal aircraft and jets. However helicopters despite their advantages have been lagging behind in penetration remarked a former helicopter pilot who did not wish to be identified.
This former pilot points out that the journey of the civil helicopter sector in India has remained more or less stagnant. “Since the first civil helicopter took to the skies in India in November 1953 the commercial use of helicopters in India was limited to small aviation companies involved in communication and crop spraying until 1986. The formation of the Helicopter Corporation of India in 1986 (later Pawan Hans Helicopters Ltd), was the turning point in the civil helicopter industry in India. Though Pawan Hans now holds and operates the largest fleet of helicopters in the country, it could only add a mere 292 units during its 26 years period up to 2012. Post that the firm began facing tough times due to higher cost of operations and regulatory norms,” remarked the former pilot.
Interestingly if one goes by the numbers India at present has only 266 civil registered helicopters in the country, operating with non scheduled operators, private category, government (central and state) and PSUs. The Non-Scheduled Operators hold the major chunk of helicopters in numbers (200 plus) the balance operate under the category of private and Government and PSUs. Surprisingly this number is very less compared to the global statistics.
“As per the available data, the total civil helicopter across the world is more than 34,000 and India accounts for less than one percent. India currently has very few civil helicopters compared to advanced countries like Switzerland. Even Brazil, which is one of the developing countries, is much ahead of India in helicopters. The Brazilian city of Sao Paulo alone has 750 helicopters. But despite all odds the market and industry in India remain optimistic. The establishment of joint ventures in India by helicopter manufacturing firms like AgustaWestland, Sikorsky and Eurocopter are positive moves,” remarked aviation and aerospace expert Girish Linganna who is also the Director of ADD Engineering Components (India) Limited.
This expert further explained that about 40 percent of civil helicopters across the globe are used for corporate business, 29 percent for emergency medical services and law enforcement, 16 percent for offshore operations and the balance for other operations such as heli-tourism, adventure sports, aerial surveys etc.
“A majority of helicopters in India are used in the energy sector, both onshore and offshore. The remaining are used in communication, medical evacuation (air taxi or ambulance services), heli-tourism, elections and other services. The energy sector which has a lot of offshore operations needs more advanced modern helicopters with better range and advanced safety features. The helicopters are gauged by their performance criteria, which is speed, safety, reliability etc. The single engine helicopters such as Eurocopter EC130/ AS350, BELL 407, Robinson R-66 and AW109 are the most popular ones and are currently in use in India. The medium twin engine AW 139, AW 169, BELL 412 and Sikorsky S-76 are in demand in the energy sector considering their safety aspects. The next in line are the multi engine helicopters, which are mostly used in the defence sector considering their high operational cost and specialised features,” added Linganna.
Aviation experts agree that though India shows a positive trend in the emerging helicopter sector, the high cost of operations, the increasing aviation turbine fuel costs, high import duty for import of helicopters and spares, application of wing air traffic rules and infrastructure such as heliports and helipads and their maintenance needs immediate focus. Going ahead in the future these issues are likely to be solved by the new helicopter policy.