Poor planning, technical issues with aircraft, shortage of pilots and engineers and non-availability of slots are said to the reasons behind cancellation of flights.
A fortnight after the much-hyped Veer Surendra Sai (VSS) Airport was inaugurated near the industrial town of Jharsuguda in western Odisha with much fanfare by none other than Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the few flights that were flown to and fro were suspended abruptly and the airport has been inoperative for three weeks now.
Ironically, while the airport is bereft of flyers and the runway is empty, its tarmac these days is full of amateurish visitors who are charmed by its glamour. In the meantime, the issue has set the political pot boiling in the region and triggered a tug of war between the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre and the Naveen Patnaik-led BJD government in the state.
The second major airport in the state, named after legendary freedom fighter Surendra Sai, had given wings to the dreams of the people of Western Odisha and was expected to boost investment and development in the region. Built 56 years after the Biju Patnaik Airport in Bhubaneswar, it was commissioned at a cost of Rs 210 crore and has state-of-the-art passenger facilities at par with other domestic airports in the country.
Budget airline Air Odisha, owned by relatives of industrialist Gautam Adani, had bagged the rights to operate flights between Jharsuguda and Bhubaneswar, Raipur and Ranchi. It was allotted 50 routes under the Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik (UDAN) scheme that aims at connecting unserved and under-served airports in the country. But the airline disappointed everyone by arbitrarily cancelling its operations. It had not even started online booking of tickets.
Air Odisha suspended its flight without any intimation, airport officials said, adding that despite repeated queries, the operator has been non-committal on resumption of the flights. “The last flight operated from the airport was on 6 October and since then, all flights have remained suspended by the airline citing internal and technical issues. We have issued them a letter to restart operations immediately,” VSS Airport Director S.K. Chauhan told the media.
The Civil Aviation Ministry too has slapped a show-cause notice on Air Odisha for discontinuation of operations. “The Jharsuguda airport is a full-fledged functional airport and available for all domestic scheduled and non-scheduled operations. The selected airline under Udan has been issued with a show-cause notice for discontinuing their operations quoting technical reasons,” the ministry said.
Sources say poor planning, technical issues with aircraft, shortage of pilots and engineers and non-availability of slots are the reasons for Air Odisha not being able to operate flights from the airport. An airline official stated that the aircraft used on the route had developed technical snags and efforts are on to deploy another craft in its place. “We are working towards resumption of flights at the airport from next week. A new flight from Bhubaneswar to Ranchi via Jharsuguda will also start very soon,” he said.
Incidentally, Air Odisha has a dubious record for having maximum flight cancellations among all flight operators in the country. As per DGCA data, it was second in flight cancellations in August this year, with 66.2%, while the worst ranked Zoom Air did not operate any flights at all. In July, Air Odisha notched a whopping 94.23% cancellations and in February 85.19%.
Meanwhile, some Odias staying abroad have demanded air connectivity from Jharsuguda to major cities of the country like Delhi, Mumbai and Kolkata. A group of Odia professionals living in United Arab Emirates recently met the Consul General of India there and presented a memorandum on the issue. “After landing in India, we are compelled to take long train journeys from these cities or fly to Bhubaneswar or Raipur to reach our home towns in West Odisha,” they explained.
The region is not only mineral and resource rich, but also home to a number of educational institutions like NIT, IIM, VSSUT and VIMSAR. The airport also has significance due to its proximity to other industrial towns like Rourkela, Sambalpur, Brajrajnagar and Belpahar, as well as the coal producing belt of Sundargarh district. Hence, looking at the demand, the VSS airport authorities are exploring alternatives and have approached other airlines for operating from there.