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Praful flies into private air pocket

New Delhi, May 6: Highflying civil aviation minister Praful Patel is caught in a political dogfight over aircraft purchases by state-run airlines, award of profitable routes to private carriers and allegedly influencing a costly upgrade of ageing Air-India aircraft.

Trinamul MP Dinesh Trivedi has written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh accusing Patel of 'favouritism' in 'piloting the opening of routes to private airlines' and spending Rs 400 crore on upgrading interiors of aircraft due to be phased out.

In his letter, Trivedi has pointed out that in spite of numerous bilaterals (seat-sharing arrangements between airlines), Patel 'chose to give Jet and Sahara access to London, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and the USA, even though Air-India operates to all these places'.

'Surely it is the duty of the government to protect its stake in airlines owned by it, as is done by governments all the world over,' he said.

The NDA coordination committee memberís letter comes close on the heels of an earlier one by Congress MPs questioning price negotiations for Airbus aircraft, which are to be bought by Indian Airlines.

A high-powered parliamentary panel on transport headed by CPM leader Nilotpal Basu has also advised a probe by an 'independent agency' into Patelís decisions and timing for awarding choice routes like New York, London and Singapore to Jet and Sahara.

The Trinamul MP told The Telegraph: 'Private airliners appear to have had prior information about policy changes contemplated by the government. Jet Airways applied for and obtained slots in London and Singapore as far back as mid-2004, even though the new policy was put to the cabinet and approved end-December.'

Patel has reportedly based his decision to allow private airlines to fly international on a report by the NDA-appointed Naresh Chandra Committee. He allegedly gave the nod before clearing purchases desperately needed by Air-India and Indian Airlines, whose static fleet sizes have restricted their ability to service global routes.

Trivedi, a long-standing member of the parliamentary consultative committee on aviation, questioned how Patel could bank on the report of 'a committee which did not have even one single aviation expert as a member'.

He said the ministry had 'zealously implemented selective recommendations of the Naresh Chandra Committee, thereby piloting Jet Airwaysí IPO, floated in January, shortly before the award of international routes to private airlines, to dizzy heights'.

Basuís report also said 'the clearances granted by the ministry to this particular airline were too close to the IPO of this airline to be termed as a coincidence'.

Basu pointed out that the ministry did not check out the track record of the private airline of flying to remote areas of India, though this was a criterion for award of international flights. Patel had earlier said licences to fly abroad could be cancelled if this condition ' of flying on social obligatory routes ' was not met.

Trivedi also attacked Patelís decision 'to spend around Rs 400 crore on upgrading interiors of old Air-India aircraft that are due to be phased out in a few yearsí time. A-I is choosing to incur expenditure on an ageing fleet, that, by its own admission, has a limited economic life left.

'What is important is the decision is not A-Iís own, but I am informed, stems from discussions held by the honourable minister for civil aviation and his officials. It is also important to note that A-I is, at the same time, aiming to add new aircraft to its fleet.'

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