NEW DELHI: Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju feels that 2018 would be a good year for the aviation sector with airports in several small cities likely to become operational, enabling people to have the option of flying.
In an interview to The Sunday Standard, Raju said the expansion of the aviation sector would increase competition, in turn improving facilities and amenities for fliers.
The Minister said there was no place for the recent incidents of misbehaviour by both passengers and airline staff.
“There is no way of justifying bad behaviour and there are systems in place for dealing with it. If a passenger behaves badly, he can be put on the ‘no-fly list’. If any airline employee behaves badly, we have the Air Sewa app on which anybody can file a complaint and the response on those complaints has to come within a particular timeline,” the minister said.
Although there are concerns about a sudden increase in air fares ahead of festivals or emergency situations, Civil Aviation Minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju has said that capping them would distort the market. Instead, a rise in fares could be checked by increasing capacity and creating healthy competition, he said. He also expressed concern over incidents of airline staff misbehaving with passengers and said appropriate steps should be taken to handle them.
On the recent incident of smuggling by an airline cabin crew and a mid-air brawl involving pilots, the Telugu Desam Party leader said Indian regulations and law were strict enough to rein in defaulters. He also spoke about improving airport infrastructure, expanding to smaller cities under the UDAN scheme and a possible drone policy. Excerpts from the interview:
What steps have been taken to check a surge in air fares so that fliers are not fleeced?
We did a year-long analysis (of airfares) and found that 1.7 per cent tickets were on high price, that too in certain sectors. World over, there is dynamic pricing and a prudent flier buys a ticket in advance and gets it cheap. One problem probably is in case of medical emergencies and you can’t probably book in advance or bereavement in family -- those are things that are hurting.
The railways managed this situation by having an emergency quota. If we apply emergency quota here, to some extent you will be distorting the market, that is one problem. We do have high pricing in certain seasons, what are the solutions that you are talking about? Now the recent parliamentary committee report on the issue talked about foreign airlines also. But we cannot cap their rates. For reasonable air fares, what you need to do is increase capacity and competition. Where competition has been generated, fares are controlled. You are talking of fixing fare slabs, that is an ancient way of controlling fares. If you cap the airfares, even the lower price will go up. You will again no longer allow market forces to determine the prices.
How do you deal with incidents like pilots getting into a mid-air brawl or smuggling by airline crew?
These incidents should not happen and smuggling should not happen. Unfortunately, some people do get tempted, get caught and ruin their lives. In case of pilots’ mid-air brawl, there is one stray incident coming in and the regulators have taken action. Nobody will interfere with the regulator’s functions, Indian regulations are very strong.
What about the rise in incidents of airline staff misbehaving with fliers?
It is unacceptable behavior, whether staff or others, we have had MPs also misbehaving. Now you have people who understand this and people who don’t understand. You have travel anxiety world over. Like road rage, you have air rage. This should not be allowed and whoever is responsible, action needs be taken under law -- there is no second thing about it. Travel anxiety is there and keeping it in mind, airlines should also gear up.
Are there any special instructions to avoid or handle such situations?
The number of passengers should increase and not such incidents. I hope such incidents don’t increase. There is no way of justifying bad behaviour and there are systems in place for dealing with it. If a passenger behaves badly, he can be put on the ‘no-fly list’. If any airline behaves badly, we have the Air Sewa app on which anybody can file a complaint and the response on those complaints has to come within specifically defined timelines.
What about concerns that complaints are not being resolved within time frames?
Most of them are. At least, 95 per cent of them are being responded to within time frames. The basis of this concern is the recent report from a parliamentary committee but, you see, that committee itself has reported on lower number of Air Sewa complaints and they said that publicity of Air Sewa should be more. Before we started Air Sewa, we directed that airports should prominently display a banner on Air India and most airports are doing it.
Complaints against all airports, whether public or private, all airlines, whether public or private, can be registered on the Air Sewa app. These complaints are getting analysed and, if they show a pattern, then naturally it will be addressed.
Talking about bad behaviour, has anyone been put on the no-fly list?
I advised airlines only once to put a person on the no-fly list. This is the case of the person (Birju Salla, a Mumbai based Gujarati jeweller) who created a flight hijack scare. I don’t know if it has been done or not.
In November, 2014, for the first time, regulations for a no-fly list had come out. That time it was put in public domain, there was no interest from anyone and it went through. By law, you are supposed to have a public consultation, it went through. Then last year, an incident happened, involving Professor Gaikwad. I never thought an MP would get involved in such an incident. Then I looked into the concept of no-fly list and I told parliament that the rules are imbalanced and they need to be balanced. I got a lot of flak for it but I do not mind the flak as long as it results in something good.
Then we developed the concept of no-fly list and put it in the public domain. Last year, we had 10 crore passengers flying and we received a total of 10,000 complaints related to everything in aviation -- from amenities, baggage etc. So, we received one complaint per 10,000 passengers.
Is the airport infrastructure in some cities in really bad shape?
Mumbai airport is an old cross runway and not a parallel one, this does not give slots to cater to everyone’s demand. According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Delhi airport will get saturated by 2023. Even Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan want airports… the more the merrier, and let us have. Then there will be competition among airports, which will make the situation better.
How far have plans for a second airport in Delhi progressed?
Hindon is a defence airport and the Ministry of Defence has given permission to use it for flights under the regional connectivity scheme (RCS). There is a probable chance that Hindon will become operational if DIAL (Delhi International Airport Limited) runs out of slots.
What should passengers expect from the aviation sector in 2018?
We will continue to grow at a very fast rate. We will have pleasant problems in certain places, some places will be nightmares because of infrastructure problems, but generally, by and large, we are on a good wicket. 2018 will be a good year.
By when can we expect the new drone policy?
The policy is under consultation. It is a tricky issue. Yes, we want drones to be used for economic activity but we don’t want drones to deliver bombs. Some state governments are using drones very innovatively. So, we are carefully working on the regulation. We want it to be meaningful and not stifling.
World over, regulations on drones is just about coming. So, for us, experiences to go by for enactment of a new drone policy are very limited. Issue like drones falling within flight paths is generating a nightmare. There are lots of things to be looked into... whether we will be able to monitor drones centrally or we should get local authorities to handle it. All these things are there. Everybody is applying their minds to the drone policy, we keep getting suggestions on this and some very interesting suggestions have also come, but at this stage, I can’t share the details.