According to industry sources, there are about 55 air operators running around 260 choppers in the country. This is at least 12 fewer choppers (most of which have been sold to private entities) available for campaign duty compared to the last general election in 2009. And this market shortage, say operators, has put enormous pressure on those in use. “Not a single chopper will be available for booking now,” says Captain Uday Gelli, CEO of Heligo Charters, which has oil and gas firms—which need them to fly executives to offshore rigs—as regular clients for its fleet of five choppers.
Most commercial helicopters in India are put to corporate use. But come election season, they go rally-hopping along the campaign trails of star campaigners. “Of what we have seen so far,” says Gelli, “chopper hiring fees are currently 15 to 20 per cent higher than in non-election periods. A Bell 412, one of the most popular chopper models in India, is being leased out for Rs 2.5 lakh to Rs 3 lakh per hour; at other times, it costs only Rs 2 lakh at most for an hour.”
The Bangalore-based Deccan Charters, one of India’s largest aircraft charter companies, claims that this election season has already seen demand soar by at least 50 per cent over the poll season of 2009. Says Colonel Jayanth Poovaiah, co- founder and director of the firm: “Business has been growing, but it’s seasonal— once in five years. We are already leasing out vehicles in the run-up to the polls, but it’s going to get much more hectic in the coming weeks.’’
Deccan Charters—whose other co- founder Captain GR Gopinath is famous for his low-cost aviation initiative Air Deccan (sold to Kingfisher in 2007) and is an AAP member to boot—offers single and twin-engine helicopters, propeller- driven aircraft and business jets for hire. In preparation for rush hour, Poovaiah says the company has already marked out four or five choppers and bases that the company will operate from.
When Deccan Aviation, as the business was once called, began operations in 1997, its charter rates for a twin-engine Bell 412 helicopter were as low as Rs 45,000 per hour; now it charges between Rs 2.5 lakh and Rs 3 lakh per hour. While the Bell 412 has a twin-engine and can seat nine passengers, smaller single- engine choppers are rented out for Rs 75,000 per hour; these require relatively frequent refuelling and are used for short-hop campaigns—say, by a regional party within the same state.
For all-India electioneering done by PM aspirants and so on, of course, jet aircraft prove the most efficient way to travel. A business jet such as Falcon 2000, Hawker 850 XP and Citation CJ 2 can be rented for Rs 60-70 lakh per hour. Often, a hub-and-spoke arrangement works best to optimise a top leader’s time: jets for trans-Subcontinent flights and then choppers for short hops from rally to rally in the same region.
All of it rakes up quite a hefty bill, no doubt. Air operators in India say they prefer dealing with agents rather than political parties. Agents often pay in advance (while making bookings). A Delhi-based agent who does not wish to be named claims most agents pay charter companies upfront on behalf of political parties, saving them the worry of chasing parties for payments later. He admits that on many occasions, they accept cash from individuals not directly associated with political parties, since such expenses are officially not shown as poll expenditure.
According to former Air Vice Marshal, K Sridharan, now president of the Rotary Wing Society of India, an organisation that works for the growth of the civil and military helicopter industry, the use of choppers during election campaigning is a logistical nightmare. “Politicians often fly to a number of far-flung areas in a single day, places where oil companies do not supply fuel. So fuel trucks have to be kept ready at designated spots. But at the last minute, a politician might change his plan and the truck must travel for hours to some other spot.”
Apart from fuel trucks, operators also send maintenance crews and signalmen to these designated spots. An experienced air operator says: “[Signalmen and motormen] who travel by road could take more than 12 hours. Signalmen are required to guide choppers as they often have to land on makeshift grounds like college football fields or on patches of land next to highways. The crew has to service the craft immediately and keep it ready for the next hop.’’
Sridharan claims that liberties are often taken with safety measures on campaign tours. “Politicians are known to pressure pilots to undertake missions in violation of safety regulations, causing pilots unnecessary tension,” he says, “They are made to fly in poor visibility and land at under-prepared helipads. Pilots are also overworked. But the Directorate General of Civil Aviation typically turns a blind eye to these excesses.” According to him, during the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls, chaos reigned at an underprepared Varanasi airport for two days. At one point, four choppers were hovering above the airport wanting to land at the same time, even as commercial airlines flew in and out. “Priority was given to scheduled aircraft, so the choppers were made to hover around,” he says, “Disaster was averted only narrowly—almost all of them were nearly out of fuel.” According to a former pilot who has flown several politicians in a state helicopter, “The danger with politicians is that they tend to override pilots’ judgements and force them to fly.” Quoting a DGCA crash investigation report, he says, “The Lok Sabha Speaker GMC Balayogi’s chopper crashed near the Andhra Pradesh coast. He had forced the pilot to fly in bad weather.”
During the 2004 General Election, South Indian actress Soundarya died in a crash on her way from Bangalore to address a BJP political rally in Andhra Pradesh. Minutes after takeoff, the Cessna aircraft she was aboard suddenly lost altitude and crashed.
Gelli says that safety standards of the use of choppers for electioneering have only improved marginally. At one time, most politicians would demand that they alight right next to their speech podium. This was not just to save time; many saw it as a status sysmbol of sorts, a signal of their importance, as also a way to impress crowds. But people swarming around choppers would suffer injuries, especially when they failed to spot the tail rotors.
“Now,” he says, “choppers land some distance away from the podium, but the audience is always divided—half of them waiting near the podium and the other half at the helipad.”