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A Spin In The Clear Blue

Gargi Gupta  |  New Delhi 

Who wants to rub shoulders with the hoi polloi on commercial flights? Not India's nouveau riche who are chartering aircrafts for a variety of uses.
Care for a joyride over Mumbai's iconic skyline? Now, for as little as Rs 10,500, you can have a closer, 30-minute aerial view of India's skyscraper city in a helicopter. Pay a little more, Rs 52,500, and you can hire the entire chopper.
"A chopper joyride facility is available in a few cities like San Francisco and Las Vegas," says Atul Khekade whose aviation startup, Airnetz, launched the service in Mumbai around a week ago.
And he's found takers: "Last weekend, we had three bookings." The demand, Khekade agrees, is largely from the foreign tourist segment, "but we are hoping it catches up with Indian HNIs too".
Clearly, having acquired the deep pockets to buy most good things on terra firma, the Indian nouveau riche are taking to the skies. After all, who wants to plod along on pot-holed roads or rub shoulders on commercial flights with the hoi polloi when you can zip through the air in style?
According to estimates (unsubstantiated since there're very few studies or reports done in this field), the private flying market in India is growing at 50 per cent a year, with 15,000 passengers who are logging 10,000 hours of annual flying time, covering four million nautical miles.
Over the years, a number of air charter companies have opened up to cater to the demand, mainly from businessmen. With rising bottomlines and toplines, the latter have been merrily buying fleets or acquiring part ownerships of aircrafts from players like the Delhi-based Club One Air (global leader NetJets has just opened shop in India and will no doubt add to the excitement).
And it is not just the promoters of the top, very large companies that're choosing to fly whenever and wherever they want to, but representatives of smaller companies as well. Airnetz, for example, has come up with hourly billing, which small and medium companies find attractive.
Then there are a few other uses to which chartered choppers are used "" ferrying rich Jatland grooms to the marriage site (Trans Bharat Aviation), or medical evacuation, which is happening primarily with foreigners because it is only first world insurance companies which pick up the tabs on such service.
"But it is happening in a small way with Indians too," says Col P S Sangha, CEO of India Flysafe Aviation. "Especially in small but prosperous towns like Raipur which lack good medical facilities."
And now, is trying to open a front in the tourism sector as well. For a start, it is offering a tour to Murud Janjira, 150 miles down the coast from Mumbai in Raigadh district, which is famous for it fort in the middle of the Arabian Sea.
It's a two-hour package, costing Rs 28,000 per person or Rs 1,40,000 if you want the entire bird to yourself. Or, you can fly to Shirdi for Rs 2,45,000 plus waiting charges.
is no innovator here "" Deccan Aviation has been running a number of ex-Bangalore helicopter tourism packages to Mysore-Cauvery Fishing Camp, Hampi, Water Woods on the banks of the Kabini river and so forth for some years now, priced from Rs 2,00,000-4,00,000.
Down south, there's the Great Indian Tour Company which offers tours of Kerala "" to Kovalam, Kumarakom, Munnar, Thrissur "" for as little as Rs 70,000. Then, there's the STIC Travel Group, which has an air charters division through which it offers package tours, ex-Delhi for now, but soon to begin in Mumbai and in the other metros too, says its head Capt Puri.
There are packages to Agra, Jaipur, Ranthambhore, Udaipur, Mashobra, Shimla, Dehradun and Ananda, all for Rs 2,12,500-5,31,250, for durations between two and six hours. It also has Char Dham packages costing a little more than Rs 6.5 lakh.
At the lower end of the market, of course, heli-tourism has been a big hit with Pawan Hans leasing out choppers and Deccan running a taxi service for pilgrims to Kedarnath, Badrinath, Amarnath and Vaishno Devi temples.
Besides, the tourism ministry has off-and-on talked of ambitious plans to start helicopter tourism in the hilly, tourist-packed tracts of North-east India, Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, as also on the Buddhist circuit. Heli-skiing, where a helicopter drops the skiier down from slopes as high as 14,000 feet, is already hot on the agenda of thrill-seekers at Hanuman Tibba and Rohtang Pass near Manali.
The prospects opening up for chartered tourism in the future are even more exciting. Manav Singh, managing director of Club One Air, who will be taking delivery of 11 Eclipses 500, a very light jet (VLJ) in July this year, feels that with VLJs, prices would drop further giving a major fillip to charters for tourism.
"For example, with a light jet, the cost of running would be Rs 1,40,000 an hour, which would come down to Rs 8,5,000 with a VLJ. With four people flying, that would mean around Rs 20,000 per person, around double of what flying on a commercial flight would cost. That's affordable!"

First Published: Sat, March 29 2008. 00:00 IST
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