Market has grown big enough today and provides business beyond election-time

NEW DELHI: The contest for Uttar Pradesh — which goes to polls next year — is well and truly underway with political parties haggling over a record number of helicopters to crisscross the state for campaigning. As many as 26 choppers could be whirling over the state's skies as the make-orbreak elections get nearer, up from a dozen or so last time, and the number could rise further. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is leading the pack.

BJP is negotiating for up to 12 helicopters, twice the six being sought by rival Samajwadi Party (SP) of Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Congress is looking at hiring four helicopters as it tries to turn its fortunes around in the politically crucial state. Mayawati's Bahujan Samajwadi Party (BSP) is negotiating for a maximum of three while Apna Dal, a member of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), is likely to hire one. These numbers could rise significantly, however, once the campaign starts to hot up, said people aware of the matter.

Much fewer helicopters were used in Bihar elections last year, of which a large number were single-engine craft. BJP, for instance, used only six helicopters during Bihar polls. Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala said he wasn't involved in the charter negotiations. Uttar Pradesh Congress president Raj Babbar did not reply to calls and messages on the matter. BJP general secretary Anil Jain also did not respond to messages and calls to his mobile.

Talks about helicopter hires, mostly the bigger twin-engine craft, began around a month back and terms will likely be agreed by October, said the people cited above. Smaller choppers will likely be hired closer to the elections, they said.


With the demand for helicopters soaring, rentals are expected to be about 15% higher than during Bihar elections, said industry insiders. Charges could rise further as parties get into a last-minute rush for choppers, these people added. "This would probably be the first time that political parties would hire so many helicopters for assembly elections in the state. This is because a lot of politicians prefer twin-engine helicopters, of which not too many are available in the country," said a person with knowledge of the matter. "These provide maximum comfort and safety as per regulatory norms."

Among twin-engine helicopters, the Eurocopter 155 and Agusta-Westland 139 are the birds of choice. They will be ferrying the likes of BJP president Amit Shah, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, vice-president Rahul Gandhi, SP president Mulayam Singh Yadav and UP CM Akhilesh Yadav besides BSP president Mayawati."These two helicopters are bigger with a seating capacity of 13 seats but customised with seven seats and cost upwards of Rs 2.5 lakh per hour of flying," said the person named above.

Elections are good business for charter companies, aviation experts said. Since Uttar Pradesh is one of India's bigger states and crucial to political fortunes, parties will be trying their utmost to gain an edge over rivals by getting their star campaigners to address as many meetings as possible. Elections are expected to be held early next year.

Still, not all charters are keen on getting a piece of the action. "An election as big as UP will surely give a push to the sector but companies need to realise that the market has grown big enough today and provides business beyond election-time flying," said Harsh Vardhan Sharma, treasurer, Business Aviation Operators Association."There are many operators in the country who do not look at election flying as business."

An industry source said singleengine helicopters will also get used and these will be hired at a later stage as the need arises as they are available in abundance in the country. "Single-engine helicopters will be used by big leaders of small parties and small leaders of big parties," said the industry insider.

Thursday, 25 August, 2016
The Economic Times