KOLKATA: Indian Air Force has now started flying civilian passengers twice a week in the remote Andaman and Nicobar islands.
A Dornier 228 aircraft, flown by a crew of the Air Force, connects Port Blair with Car Nicobar and Campbell Bay -- the two islands which lie further south in the archipelago.
Meant solely for use of defence forces, IAF aircraft fly civilians only during cases of emergency, but this is an exception.
At present, aerial transport in the form of Pawan Hans helicopters is available to very few islanders in Campbell Bay.
Lt General A K Singh (Retd), Lt Governor of the union territory, said an extended Air India flight to Car Nicobar was withdrawn recently as the lease of the aircraft had expired after which they approached the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Civil Aviation to improve inter-island connectivity.
"The Defence ministry has now given us the aircraft for civilian use. We are collecting the airfare from passengers and paying the air force some charges based on the number of flying hours. Our tickets are subsidised for islanders," he told PTI from Port Blair.
The twin engine turbo-prop aircraft which can cruise at a speed of 200 knots can carry up to ten passengers.
Fitted with modern avionics, the aircraft is widely used for transport of air force personnel.
"The new aircraft is for the people but run by the administration of the union territory as it is they who do the bookings," said Colonel Yogesh Sharma of the tri-service Andaman and Nicobar Command.
Sharma said by providing a much faster transportation alternative to the islanders it will add a new dimension to passenger traffic network in the Bay of Bengal islands.
The IAF Dornier takes one hour from Port Blair to reach Car Nicobar island from where Campbell Bay is another hour away.
The entire journey is about 300 km.
The air force has been working closely with the local administration on disaster management for a long time. Every year they receive multiple requests for evacuation of civilians during severe medical emergencies.
All airbases, airstrips and helipads in the chain of islands are under the control of the defence.
In the absence of adequate transport network, the new flight service has got an enthusiastic response from locals.
The Lt Governor said improving connectivity and communication are the two biggest areas of focus for them.
He said they want to create a balance of air and sea connectivity and have therefore placed orders for buying new ships for various routes with the central government's support.
From next year some of these ships are expected to start plying.