To successfully provide affordable air travel, government needs to ensure economic viability of its policies.
This year the Indian government decided to connect 56 unserved airports, under the Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme. The aim of the entire scheme is to make air travel affordable. Although the intentions of the scheme are noble, the steps taken have limited the scope of implementation. One of the key failures lies with the inability to understand the repercussions on the economic viability of airlines.
While the capital invested in buying and maintaining even a single airplane is already high, fuel cost and hiring the crew to keep an airline going add to the expensive affair. To give a ball park figure, domestic airlines in the U.S. spends a combined $2 to $5 billion on just jet fuel every month. Keeping the costs in in mind, it is important for the airline industries to ensure that the flight routes are economically viable. One of the ways this is ensured is by connecting less frequented routes with the major stops in order to cross subsidise the cost. In India, we follow a hub and spoke model where the major cities are the hub or the centre of the wheel and the all the traffic is connected to the centre and passes around the spokes. This helps increasing connectivity while keeping the flight routes viable. This heavy traffic is the the primary reason why most major cities in the world have two airports. The traffic going to and fro from these metropolis does not only keep the city running, but the airlines too.
It is in light of this distribution between traffic that the government policy to connect underserved airports can be questioned. That said, the current scheme tries to provide Value Gap Funding to certain routes for first few years to cover for the additional cost incurred. VGF is an economic tool that includes tax redemptions and financial support provided by the government to make the project viable. For instance for UDAN, the union government contributes 80 per cent of the VGF amount, while the remaining comes from the state governments concerned and in the case of north-eastern states and union territories, the sharing ratio is 90:10.
Although, the funding does provide incentives for flight to opt for the routes till they are being subsidised, it does not create enough incentives for the routes to remain viable after. The inherent flaw in the policy move, therefore, make it unsustainable. The grimness of the possible outcome is captured best in an article in The Economist :
“High per-passenger costs on seldom-used routes will force Mr Modi to draw the line somewhere. Inevitably, he will conclude that not every commoner deserves the gift of flight.”
To make the airports truly viable, union government needs to look at making the cities more attractive for regular travellers or tourists. Hence, to bring a ghost airport to life it is important for the government to put some life into the host city.