India turns ‘no fly zone’ for business jets on weekends

NEW DELHI: With the government having put ease of doing business in India at the top of its agenda, VistaJet boss Thomas Flohr knows one change he'd like to see happen — get the aviation regulator to work on weekends so that overflight approvals don't need to take three days. To be sure, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation will approve emergency requests in a matter of hours but for everybody else, the office is shut on Saturday and Sunday.

Flohr had wanted to fly from Myanmar to Dubai on Monday, January 4, for which permission was sought on the preceding Friday, New Year's Day. But VistaJet, the world's largest operator of business jets, was told it wouldn't be able to get approval before Tuesday.

"I had to be in Dubai on Monday," Flohr told ETin a recent interview. Circumventing India meant an additional three hours of flying time-—it took him nine hours instead of six to get to Dubai from Myanmar.

And it's not just overflights, even trips to Indian destinations from overseas at short notice, say by a corporate boss in her company jet, risk getting stuck. All foreign-registered aircraft using Indian air space need DGCA approval. While scheduled commercial airlines have a fixed timetable and approvals are obtained in advance, business jets need permission each time they fly into or over India, as do those seeking to fly overseas from the country.

Flohr said the regulator can speed up things by hiring a few more people because such delays hurt India's image when it's aiming to draw overseas investment.

"Aviation is a 24/7 business. How can the regulator not work on weekends?" Flohr said. "The Indian government is trying to improve its ranking in ease of doing business in India. The government can improve it further by hiring five to 10 people who can work on weekends."

The solution may not be that simple though. DGCA didn't respond to queries but an official who didn't want to be named said such permission wasn't just up to the regulator. Apart from emergencies, such applications need to be cleared by the home ministry and other government departments.

Indian business jet operators echo the concerns raised by Flohr. International flight plans filed by them also get stuck because of weekends and holidays.

"Every Indian business aircraft flying international has to take approvals from the DGCA. These approvals are delayed, as the DGCA does not work on weekends," said RK Bali, secretary at the Business Aircraft Operators Association, which represents 130 business aircraft operators registered in the country.

To be sure, DGCA officials try to be as accommodative as they can. A business aircraft operator said that flight plans have at times been sent for approval to their homes.

"They take pride in saying that they are helpful and sign on approvals even when they are off on weekends. But this problem can be sorted completely by hiring people to work on weekends, which they won't," said the person, who didn't want to be named.

In the US, once an operator has been approved by the aviation authorities, it doesn't have to seek permission every time one of its planes uses the country's airspace.

"Why cannot India copy systems prevalent in the US? I do not need a permit to fly to the US because we are approved by them," said Flohr, whose company has a fleet of 61aircraft, five of them dedicated to the Indian market.

The situation in China was similar to India until five years ago, but that country has now fixed the problem, he said. "Somewhat it's the same for India. Once these norms are relaxed, it will immensely benefit the country."

Bali also said that the situation is not in sync with the requirements of aviation. "There is a huge gap between aviation's requirement and regulator's attitude," he said.

Date: 
Saturday, 16 April, 2016
Publication: 
The Economic Times