Proposed to boost Tourism and industry, the revival of commercial flights from Puducherry Airport on January 17 by SpiceJet, operating on the Puducherry-Bangalore sector, was done with much fanfare. But now, after four months, the flight operation is threatened by sustainability issues.
The response to the four-flights-a-week schedule (Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays) has been less than 50 per cent of the capacity. Though SpiceJet is flying its 78-seater Bombadier Q 400 aircrafts, it is able to take a maximum passenger load of 58 due to the limitations of the Airport runway, which was built for ATR aircrafts. But, even a passenger load of 58 is hard to get with an average passenger occupancy being 30 per cent, sources said.
The response for Sunday flights are good with the occupancy being around 50 seats, while on Thursday, it is fair with 30 seats. Trouble lurks on Fridays and Saturdays when the occupancy hovers between 18 and 20 seats, Airport sources said.
At least 75 per cent occupancy of the full capacity is required to break even (no profit no loss) for making the operation viable, sources said. Till date, the operator has not been able to recover the fuel cost and is running in losses. Unless it is made viable by increasing the passenger load, it will not be able to sustain. It could lead to closure of the operation which would not be desirable in the interest of Puducherry, considering the fact that the commercial operations has been resumed after 22 years, airport sources added.
Already, Airports Authority of India (AAI) has taken up the issue of strengthening the runway by increasing the pavement classification number (PCN) to more than the present value of 14 and widening the shoulder to 16 metres with 7.5 metres on each side, sources said.
“There is lack of response from the industry and government. The timing of the mid-day flights has not worked out to be convenient for the industry. If the flights are in the beginning of the day or at the end of the day, there will be better response,” says CII Puducherry President Amarnath.
As of now, flights from Puducherry Airport cannot be operated beyond 4.30 pm due to visibility factor as automated night landing facilities are not available at the Airport.
Not only the industry patrons, but also passengers on overseas flights like Air France, British Airways and Lufthansa, which reach Bangalore early in the morning, can take the connecting flight to Puducherry in the morning itself.
On the other hand, operators feel that a vital and robust support is necessary from the government. The passenger load could be increased if the government steps in and takes the responsibility of a few seats, like the Karnataka government had done for the Bangalore-Mysore SpiceJet flight that began operations on the same day as Puducherry. The government can at least provide subsidy on the fare.
The Airport also lacks fuelling station and extra fuel has to be loaded in Bangalore for the to and fro flight. This is disadvantageous as not only there is extra weight on the carrier, but also burn out of fuel. Though the government had decided to give one per cent reduction of VAT on Aviation Turbine Fuel as an incentive to flight operators, it has not materialised. “It is under process,” said L Kumar, Commissioner of Commercial Tax.
Approval for uplifting cargo services will also bring in ancillary revenue for the operator and it needs to be pursued. Operators feel that there are prospects for carrying 300 kg from Puducherry and its surrounding areas.
The AAI can perhaps also look at waiving the licence fee for the office of the operator in the Airport, considering that Puducherry government had already provided electricity and water tariff exemptions.