The Maharana Pratap Airport in Udaipur will see its busiest period this week as more than 200 charter planes will fly into the city ferrying guests for the wedding of Isha Ambani and Anand Piramal.
Besides private charters, the Ambani family has booked almost 20 aircraft from commercial airlines for the guests. Tata-Singapore Airlines joint venture Vistara is flying at least ten one-way charters from Delhi and Mumbai to Udaipur, while SpiceJet, Jet Airways and Air Asia, together, will be operating 10 more flights to Udaipur.
Families of Asia's richest man Mukesh Ambani and Piramal Group head Anand Piramal are holding the pre-wedding bash of their son and daughter at Udaipur.
"It's not usual that airlines are operating charter flights during the peak winter season. An airline would only accept charter when they are very lucrative. Otherwise, they decline. The Ambanis are paying good money for each flight," said an executive of one of the carriers. All the airlines refused to comment on the bookings.
Besides the scheduled carriers, the Reliance group is using its own planes to ferry guests. "Reliance has its own aviation business, plus many of the guests flying to the wedding will be flying by their own personal charter," said an industry source. The Reliance group has around 11 fixed-wing aircraft and three helicopters in its fleet.
Due to the high movement of planes, the Udaipur airport authorities have increased its daylight watch hours to 4 pm from the regular 5:30 am to 1:45 pm. However, the tiny airport does not have enough infrastructure for parking. Hence, the planes have to fly back to Jaipur and Ahmedabad for night parking.
"Usually, the highest movement this airport handles is 20 movements per day. This is a significant rise in numbers but we are prepared, as the guests will mostly arrive in the morning hours," said an official of the Udaipur airport.
Executives of charter plane companies say that while wedding season is one reason for the increase in charter movements, the trend has reduced from previous years. "The trend of big fat Indian weddings has come down drastically, impacting the charter business during the wedding season. The Ambani wedding is an exception but such high movement of charters are now unusual for weddings," said Sachit Wadhwa, of Baron Luxury and Lifestyles, an aggregator of private jets.
They said that the ongoing election season in Rajasthan is also one more reason for the rise in charter movements. "Charter rates, especially for twin-engine choppers, which are in demand from top ministers and high-ranking politicians, have soared, too. That is because VIPs are not allowed under the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) norms to travel in single-engine choppers," said an executive of a Delhi-based charter company.
Typically, planning for election flying begins six to seven months before a campaign begins. For charters, the election season is of 45-60 days. During this period, flying is at its peak for around 30 days.
During the planning stage, charter brokers buy or commit block hours per aircraft from chartered plane companies, in lieu of an advance sum. For instance, a broker could buy a committed flying of 90 hours per aircraft for 30 days and sell it to a political party, based on its requirements.
According to industry sources, there are around 100-150 general aviation (non-scheduled and charter movements) movements daily in India and over half of them are from Mumbai and Delhi.
Corporate, medical and leisure travel are main growth contributors, while wedding-related charters form a very small segment of the business. The industry, however, has been seeing a slow growth of 2-3 per cent increase in movements, largely due to infrastructure constraints, regulatory and taxation challenges.
Experts, however, are hopeful that the construction of a fourth runway in Delhi will increase the traffic handling capacity and help in the growth of charters.