LS polls: Choppers churn cash, as netas fly for campaigning

New Delhi, April 6: Choppers and fixed-wing charter aircraft are churning out serious cash for their owners these days, thanks to political parties which are using these to traverse the length and breadth of India.

So frequently are these state-of-the-art flying machines being used that local party workers have started referring to them as 'Pushpak Viman', the mythical flying machine from the epic Ramayana.

Be it a Bell, Eurocopter, AgustaWestland or Whirlybird, these power-horses of election campaigning can cruise at an average speed of 160 km an hour and provide a comfortable ride to leaders who have to address at least three rallies a day in far-flung areas.

Operators and brokers say the demand is going over the roof, and operations have shifted from ferrying business honchos, miners and engineers to worksites and tourists to religious and other destinations to campaign activities.

"On an average a chopper which operates 30 hours per month is now flying for 45-60 hours," Colonel (retired) Sanjay Julka, director operations, India FlySafe Aviation, told IANS.

So lucrative has the chopper rental business has become that some private companies owning a small fleet are renting them out. Their deals with political parties are confidential.

Others who offer these services on a daily basis are charging hefty cash by flying leaders to their destinations.

"Though expensive, private helicopters and charter aircraft provide convenience, time-saving, access to voters in far flung areas and safety from mob attacks on the road route," Amber Dubey, partner and head of Aerospace and Defense at global consultancy KPMG, told IANS.

While a small chopper with a passenger capacity of 3-4 which in normal circumstances costs nearly one lakh rupees per hour will come for anywhere in the range of three to four lakh rupees.

Bigger choppers and fixed-wing aircraft with higher carrying capacity can range from Rs 6 to 10 lakh per hour. Even waiting time is chargeable.

"As election dates near and the campaigning is at its peak charges can sometimes even double. However, as most of the fleet is booked in advance the rates remain flexible but on a higher side," a leading chopper service provider asking not to be named told IANS from Mumbai.

"The rental process is no different in state election process. However, the cost are one-third of general election operations," an official of the company said.

Another major factor boosting the demand for these machines is the fact that the Election Commission has reduced campaigning days from 21 to 14 days for cutting election expenditure, thereby allowing a very short time for political leaders to reach out to voters.

"We have a specific team which deals with the chopper vendor. We block our fleet of choppers or fixed-wing aircraft in advance. Sometimes as early as two months before campaigning begins. That gives us an advantage in negotiating a good deal," said a functionary of a political party.

"If the state unit is not capable of hiring a chopper our party headquarters then provides the transportation through national or regional aviation hubs," he said.

The high frequency of chopper flights has forced the Directorate General of Civil Aviation to issue safety guidelines for pilots.


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