At the third US-India Aviation Summit held in Washington recently, many speakers pointed to serious restraints on India’s aviation infrastructure. There are not enough airports and not enough carriers to service growing demand for air travel to non-metro, tier II and tier III cities. Today there is no coherent or realistic national programme to tackle these multi-billion-dollar issues.
The Problem at Hand
In July 2012, the Prime Minister’s Office announced a commitment of $2 billion for the development of a new regional transport aircraft (RTA), to be designed and built in India. It would carry 70-90 passengers. If the RTA proceeds as a jet aircraft, it will find itself squarely in a very crowded market in which competition is presented by Bombardier, Embraer, Comac, Mitsubishi and Sukhoi. For India’s specific needs, it has dubious utility, since a jet is most unlikely to be capable of operation from short runways as needed to work routes to India’s under-served cities.
Yet — if properly executed — the RTA holds great promise. As a national initiative, India should champion a longterm programme to design, develop, build and support a civil aircraft focused on India’s particular transport needs. Such an aircraft need not fly fast or high, but it must be able to operate economically on routes under 1,000 km and from unimproved airfields with short runways. This points to a next generation turboprop-powered transport aircraft. Turboprops are undergoing something of a renaissance elsewhere in the world, largely as a function of continuing high prices for aviation fuel that reward the lower cost of operation (versus a jet) of a turboprop.
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