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Small towns to figure in air map

December 01, 2006 12:44 IST

So what is common among Lilabari in Assam, Bellary in Karnataka and Latur in Maharashtra?

The answer is simple: Inhabitants in these small cities and towns can now junk train and fly across to the nearest metro city, as domestic carriers are finding connectivity to these routes good business.

Over the last six months, more than 20 small cities (tier-III and tier-IV) have been added to the air map of the country and the number is expected to double in the next six months, as more and more defunct airports are being modernised by the government.

Airlines, led by Capt G R Gopinath-promoted low-cost carrier Air Deccan, have started connecting "virgin air routes" such as Pathankot (Himachal), Lilabari, Silchar (both in Assam), Katra (Jammu & Kashmir), Bellary (Karnataka), Baghdogra (Assam), Aizwal (Mizoram), Dibrugarh (Assam) and Kulu (Himachal).

Plans are also afoot to connect more cities including Sholapur, Nanded, Latur (all in Maharashtra), Dharmasala and Jamshedpur in Air Deccan's air connectivity routes.

Not to be outdone, Vijay Mallya-promoted Kingfisher Airlines operates to Dibrugarh, Udaipur, Vijaywada and Varanasi. While IndiGo is linking Imphal and Vadodara, SpiceJet is connecting Varanasi, Jaipur and Guwahati. Jagson Airline is linking Pant Nagar (Uttaranchal) and Shimla (Himachal), while Paramount Airways is connecting Madurai and Coimbatore.

Jet Airways is also connecting smaller cities such as Porbander (Gujarat), Leh (J&K), Khajuraho (MP), Bhuj, Bhavanagar (Gujarat), Diu (a union territory) and Jorhat (Assam). GoAir is linking Jammu and Srinagar, while Air Sahara connecting Ranchi (Jharkand) and Gorakhpur (UP).

Gopinath said there were over 500 cities in the country with huge potential, and Air Deccan was creating "a robust business model by tapping traffic potential from theseĀ  virgin cities".

"Air link to these new cities will stimulate quicker graduation of rail and bus passengers to air. If we could tap at least 10 per cent of bus and rail passengers, it will be three million passengers to air travel," Gopinath said.

And, it is not the government, which is forcing carriers to go to uncharted cities as a condition to get metro connectivity, actually flying virgin routes makes good business sense.

Of course, there are incentives from the government. ATR turboprop aircraft, which is the common aircraft used on these routes, is exempted from landing charges and parking charges.

"ATR aircraft connecting these tier-III and IV cities can purchase jet fuel by giving only 4 per cent sales tax against 25 - 30 per cent for bigger jets. These carriers are also entitled to 60 per cent concession in route navigation charges," industry sources said. Besides, the Ministry of Civil Aviation has chalked out a Rs 6,000 crore (Rs 60 billion) plan for modernising and upgrading 35 non-metro airports in the country.

Virgin routes make money because they deliver good load factors and yields, though overall passenger volumes may be low.

Industry analysts say virgin routes will be profitable in just six months against 12-18 months for busiest routes.

Largest budget carrier Air Deccan operates one-third of its flights on virgin routes.

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P R Sanjai in Mumbai