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Copter service aborts take-off

A helicopter service that had promised to connect Calcutta with the districts has been grounded before take-off on “technical grounds”, at least for a week.

Pawan Hans was scheduled to fly Calcutta-Santiniketan-Durgapur from Monday, but postponed the inauguration of the service on the morning of the first flight.

While “technical problem” is the immediate cause for the postponement, sources in the aviation industry feared that the F-word — feasibility — could play spoilsport in the weeks to come.

“Corporate travel is the lifeblood of aviation. Industry-starved Bengal can hardly guarantee that to a helicopter service. Pawan Hans cannot survive long without corporate travellers,” said an official of a private helicopter company in Delhi.

Sources in the state transport department said there were a “few bookings” for the inaugural flight but did not specify how many. Each Pawan Hans helicopter can seat seven passengers.

“Pawan Hans has yet to carry out trial landing at two of the proposed destinations, Gangasagar and Balurghat. Ticketing procedures involving a private agency haven’t been finalised either. These loose ends will be tied up by next Monday,” an official said.

Transport minister Madan Mitra added to the confusion by saying that the launch had been postponed because of a rethink by the government on a single-route launch. “This isn’t because of lack of preparedness. We would like the service to take off from all the venues together.”

Sources in Bengal Aerotropolis Projects Ltd (BAPL), with which the state government struck a deal on December 5 for the Calcutta-Durgapur route, said the ticketing system needed to be fine-tuned before starting the service.

Industrialists and top company officials routinely hire helicopters to tour the districts, but lack of industry in Bengal would make any helicopter service totally dependent on the government role — either through subsidies or through pre-booked hours.

Cart Air had started charter services from Calcutta in 2011. By the end of 2012, the company had shifted its two helicopters to other states. “Although the short joyrides were popular, a helicopter service can’t subsist on that,” a source in the company said.

In 2011, Northeast Shuttles, a private airline that had started a service between Calcutta and Cooch Behar, backed out for want of passengers.

“In places like Delhi, political parties use copter services frequently. But here there are hardly any takers,” said an official of a private airline.

“In any case, most of the routes in Bengal are not viable. The only route where there is potential for corporate travel is Durgapur, mostly by public-sector executives,” an official said.

A twin-engine, seven-seater helicopter like the one Pawan Hans plans to operate in Bengal needs to fly full at least 40 to 45 hours a month to break even. “The minimum cost of operating a helicopter for 20 minutes — the time needed to reach Durgapur from Calcutta — is Rs 6,000 per seat. A service provider has to charge more than that to make a profit,” an aviation industry veteran said.

Proposed fares

Calcutta-Gangasagar
Rs 1,500

Calcutta-Durgapur
Rs 4,200 (Rs 2,500 after subsidy)

Calcutta-Malda
Rs 1,300

Calcutta-Balurghat
Rs 1,500

Calcutta-Santiniketan
Rs 1,500