Travel facilities in northeast India have always left much to be desired, but they may improve considerably if a proposal the government is currently considering comes through.
Planning Commission deputy chairperson Montek Singh Ahluwalia has mooted the idea of setting up a separate regional airline for the northeastern region "which could be effectively subsidised by mainstream airlines".
The mainstream airlines in return could be exempted from present mandatory requirements for direct connectivity in that region.
The government is examining whether the 19-seater Dornier 228 - manufactured indigenously by the Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) - could be pressed into service there, flying to all the 18 airports in that region, with Guwahati in Assam being the hub.
"Whether the Dornier 228 is the right aircraft for the purpose is obviously a separate point. However, given the facilities which exist, it is quite likely that it may well be a sensible option at least for a while, after which we could bring in a more appropriate aircraft", Alhuwalia said in a communication to minister of state for commerce Jairam Ramesh.
Ramesh in turn has written to the prime minister, civil aviation minister and the defence minister.
HAL, a state-owned undertaking under the ministry of defence, has already made a detailed presentation to the government. "Effective air operations in the north-east require small, short haul turbo-prop aircraft. This can be best met by the Dornier 228 that can easily take off and land at the smallest airports (including with semi-prepared runways) in the region", said Ashok K Baweja, chairman of HAL. Given its limited capacity, high occupancy and thus operational economy even on routes which relatively few travellers use, is assurred.
Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel, however, is not entirely convinced about the commercial feasibility of the Dornier-228 proposal. "Indian Airlines has pointed out that the Dornier-228 aircraft was designed in the mid 1980s and may not yield favourable commercial returns today, given the increased fuel cost, maintenance cost and product support problems," he stated in his reply to Ramesh.
But he added that airlines were free to choose whatever aircraft they liked, depending upon their commercial judgement and area of operation.
External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee said, "The matter is being taken up with prospective operators. They have been told to start operations. The feedback we get will indicate the possibilities available".
At present, there are air service to 11 airports of the region, while there is no service to Arunachal Pradesh.