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Choppers outfly jets in campaign despite high costs

The Indian politician is flying high. Despite the economic slowdown, more and more candidates for the parliamentary election are hiring helicopters, spending as much as Rs.100,000 an hour.

delhi Updated: Apr 14, 2009 14:38 IST

The Indian politician is flying high. Despite the economic slowdown, more and more candidates for the parliamentary election are hiring helicopters, spending as much as Rs.100,000 an hour. And because helicopters can fly to any terrain, not many politicians except the creamy layer among them are using the plush business jet, which are otherwise the first choice for politicians in the US and Europe.

Industry insiders said the general election campaign is seeing the largest number of high-flying politicians, going by the number of choppers hired by them or their parties. Choppers cost between Rs.45,000 and over Rs.100,000 an hour, but that does not seem to deter political parties determined to rule India. "More choppers are being used for the election campaign this time," said Manav Singh, managing director of the Delhi-based chartered Club One Air, which now plans to add helicopters to its fleet of nine executive jets.

The ruling United Progressive Alliance government has issued licences for 30 new choppers till 2009. This has led to more choppers being available for the campaign this time, Singh said. "Four of our aircraft have been hired by political parties for campaigning," he said. "We now plan to add choppers to our fleet."

According to one estimate, Delhi-based charter companies such as SPIC Travel's Air Charters India owns about eight choppers, many of which are being hired by political parties. Bangalore's Deccan Aviation and Jupiter Aviation are among the others renting out choppers to politicians. In all there are about 180 choppers across the country, of which up to 50 are used for campaigning.

State-owned Pawan Hans Helicopters has rented four choppers from its fleet of 36 to political parties. "We generally rent out choppers on long-term commitments, but during elections, we do rent out a few choppers," said a top Pawan Hans official.

An industry official said political parties have booked medium to large twin-engine choppers, air-conditioned choppers and a few small jet aircraft to ferry their top leaders to different parts of the country.

The Congress has hired choppers and 10-15 seater aircraft for its top leaders like party president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress general secretaries including Rahul Gandhi and state party chiefs.

The Bharatiya Janata Party has also hired choppers and aircraft for its leadership including its prime ministerial candidate L.K. Advani, party president Rajnath Singh and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. "On an average, a small two-seater helicopter can be chartered for around Rs.45,000 an hour while a large 13-seater (like the MI-172 that has a seating capacity of up to 26) is available for up to Rs.135,000 an hour," the industry official said on the condition of anonymity.

He said these were standard rates and could be higher for political campaigns, as the choppers have to fly to remote locations and at short notice. While single-engine choppers are in demand for shorter distances, big-ticket names prefer twin-engine helicopters, keeping in mind the safety aspects, said a member of the Rotary Wing Society of India, a club of chopper pilots, many of them retired Indian Air Force aviators.

Compared to choppers, the demand for executive jets is abysmal. "Hardly 10 chartered aircraft of the 250 or so in India are being used for campaigning," said Club One Air's Singh, who says he has rented out five from his fleet of nine. "This is because you need to have airstrips that are regularly used and properly manned."

Added Sandeep Saraf, chief executive of the Delhi-based maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) company Shaurya Aeronautics: "Choppers can land and take off from anywhere. But chartered aircraft cannot be used to fly to remote areas where airstrips are below standard."

First Published: Apr 14, 2009 14:31 IST