Not quite flying: Why the Modi govt’s UDAN scheme is struggling

Connecting small towns, unserved and underserved airports on India’s air map: That’s how UDAN was imagined when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the first flight of the regional air service on April 27, 2017, between Delhi and Shimla.

As many as 688 routes connecting cities and towns have been announced for UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik) Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) so far. It’s the world’s most ambitious aviation programme, but a look at the performance of airlines, airports and state governments shows that it has failed to soar high. Only 232 routes — a third of those planned — are working to date, according to official figures.

Many routes declared operational do not have flights after Jet Airways and two smaller airlines collapsed. Even successful airlines like SpiceJet have abandoned some routes due to lack of passengers. All airlines operating on UDAN routes have hit turbulence financially, though not entirely due to the scheme. Places that were to be connected in the first round of operations still have no airports or airstrips.

Routes to nowhere

UDAN’s troubles started with its inauguration in 2017. Five airlines — SpiceJet, Alliance Air, Trujet, Deccan Charters, and Air Odisha — were awarded 128 routes among them. Only 54 routes operate yet. Deccan Charters and Air Odisha bagged two-thirds in the first round of bidding, but they performed so poorly that those routes had to be cut.

Deccan Charters had its contract cancelled; that hurt the government’s plan to connect capitals of India’s northeastern states with one another. Eventually, Alliance Air was given the task in December 2019.

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