The Narendra Modi led government in India has been on a mission to connect towns and cities with an ambitious Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) named UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik). While the bids received enthusiastic response, when it came to start the routes – the airlines have had a forgettable record. With just 25% of the routes operationalized, every new airport and route is worth celebrating.
The latest airport to start operations will be Kalaburagi Airport (IATA: GBI), in the state of Karnataka which will start commercial operations today with Bengaluru based Star Air starting scheduled service from the capital of Karnataka. This takes the count of operational airports in Karnataka to seven. While Bengaluru and Mangalore are the international airports in operation, Belgaum, Hubli, Vidyanagar and Mysore also see scheduled service.
The airport has taken a decade to be constructed and operationalized. Gulbarga – the city which will be served by this airport is located over 600 kms away from Bengaluru and over 200 kms from Hyderabad. There are other airports in the vicinity like Sholapur and Latur which have seen service in the past but are currently idle while Bidar – an airbase of the Indian Air Force is yet to see commercial service. Gulbarga has population of less than a million, but the airport could act as a gateway to nearby tourist places like Bijapur and commercial centers in Telangana like cement plants in the Ranga Reddy district and small and medium scale industries in Sholapur district of Maharashtra.
Star Air will operate the flight thrice a week on Mondays, Fridays and Sundays and this route is under Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) – UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Nagrik). The airline has been operating flight to Hindon since the launch of commercial services at Hindon.
Star Air started operations in January 2019 and currently operates to eight stations with a fleet of two E-145 regional jets which seat 50 passengers. The aircraft were under-utilized so far but are getting back to industry standard utilization levels slowly. All eyes continue to be on the airline to have a success story in both commuter airline concept in India and use of Regional Jets in the country.
Its current schedule is scattered, partly due to the non-daily flights it bagged under RCS-UDAN and the runway closure at Bengaluru on Tuesdays. While a lot of the airline’s flights are on UDAN routes where there is subsidy and little or no competition, there are a few like Bengaluru – Hubli where the airline sees competition from IndiGo and Air India. A route which is very interesting to observe since it sees three airlines operate three different type of aircraft. IndiGo operates the ATR72-600 with 74 seats and takes 1:25 minutes for the mission, while Air India operates the A319 and takes an hour – same as Star Air which operates the 50-seater regional jet. A classic fight between the metrics of CASK (Cost per Available Seat Kilometer) and Trip Cost (total cost per trip). What is even more interesting is that the flights depart within minutes of each other, thus not giving any edge to any operator in terms of timings.
Star Air will soon have to look for ways to standardize a schedule but going by the count of routes it has won under RCS-UDAN, the airline will have to utilize its aircraft to fulfill the commitments under the scheme before looking at regular commercial operations. With monopoly routes, flight timings matter less and will help the airline to some extent. Going by the fares on the route to Hindon, I expect the airline to increase the frequency of the flights, even if that means it is a non-RCS flight.