Back in the 1980s, the diminutive Dornier 228 (Do-228) was part of a fleet that connected some remote corners of the country. Now, three decades later—and after a couple of ambitious homegrown civilian aircraft projects—the Dornier can possibly lay claim to be the first light transport aircraft for civilian use that will be fully manufactured in India. That’s because the aircraft recently received a type certification from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) which would allow it to resume civilian duties. It’s a second innings of sorts for the 19-seater airplane manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
Ever since Vayudoot—the feeder airline service started in 1981 when today’s bustling small towns were actually remote outbacks—shut down in the mid-1990s, the Do-228 has mostly been a military aircraft in India apart from flying with the Coast Guard. With the DGCA certification—the standards globally for civilian aircraft are tougher than military aircraft—the Dornier can enter the fray as the government’s Regional Connectivity Scheme or UDAN (Ude Desh Ka Aam Nagrik) rolls out.
“The Do-228’s commercial flight certification by DGCA is a positive development,” says Amber Dubey, partner and India head of Aerospace and Defence at global consultancy KPMG. He reckons it provides an alternative to other 19-seaters like the Canadian DHC Twin Otters, the Czech-made L-410 and the PZL M28 (now owned by Lockheed Martin).
The Do-228 was designed by German aircraft-maker Dornier Luftfahrt GmbH from whom HAL bought a production license in 1983 to manufacture these planes for the Asian market. So far, HAL’s Kanpur division has produced around 130 Dornier aircraft for the Indian Air Force, Navy, Coast Guard, early airline ventures like Vayudoot besides exporting to Mauritius and Seychelles. Some of the other Indian customers included UB Air, Vijay Mallya’s maiden airline venture and Shimla-based Jagson Airlines.
HAL reckons the upgraded version, Do-228-201, is best suited under the Make in India category for UDAN. Its chairman T. Suvarna Raju has previously said that the company sees ‘big business opportunity in this segment for the next 10 years’. People in the know claim that around 15 agencies, many of them domestic airlines, have shown interest.
Work in progress at Hindustan Aeronautics, Bangalore
A year ago, while on a visit to the Kanpur facility, minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha said there was a demand for at least 200 aircraft in the category. Back in the 1980s, the Vayudoot fleet of ten Do-228s largely depended on Dornier GmbH for spares. That’s no longer the situation, aviation industry veterans point out. “Product support will never be a problem whosoever operates this aircraft. The only suggestion I would make to the government and various airlines is that a plan be worked out for the next 5-10 years,” says A.K. Saxena, a former MD (Bangalore complex) at HAL. “In the aircraft industry, we need a plan for 5-6 years because materials have to be imported so that we can keep churning out the aircraft engines, accessories, systems and avionics.” The Dornier is suited for shorter routes and, in all fairness, is an indigenously produced aircraft, he adds.
Ironically, a fully homegrown civilian aircraft has been a dream that India’s aeronautics community has pursued with little success for more than two decades. It’s quite a long story actually, one that started with Saras, a 14-seater that the Bangalore-based National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) began building in the 1990s. The designers struggled with the initial prototype which was overweight. Of course, the project pressed on and the plane also featured at Bangalore’s biennial air shows. But the project took a blow in 2009 when one of the Saras prototypes crashed during a flight test, killing three officers on board. Since then, it has struggled to get back on track though there’s word that flight testing is likely to resume soon.
In 2010, even as the Saras was grounded, there came a more ambitious project to build a 70- to 90-seater aircraft aimed primarily at connecting small cities and designed for Indian conditions. The task of mapping out the process got off to a flying start and the country’s top aerospace experts were involved in preparing a feasibility report that outlined the funding and manufacture. The project, then estimated at Rs 7,500 crore, had in its sights a 90-seater turbofan aircraft that would be designed and produced in partnership with private industry. Sadly, it couldn’t go beyond the initial planning. As one insider puts it, not everybody was convinced with the configuration decided upon. “After that, it was a slide completely,” the person says. “The 70 to 90-seater market segment is very dicey, sandwiched in between the big gorillas and the small plane-makers.”
The Do-228, like most 19-seaters, is a non-pressurised aircraft, and could face a challenge when it comes to travelling comfort, says KPMG’s Amber Dubey. He also points out that HAL may have to create options for leasing the aircraft themselves because small regional service operators may not have the ability to buy aircraft. “In the UDAN scheme,” says Saxena, “many routes may actually not be viable with bigger aircraft. This aircraft is suited for shorter routes and optimum capacity utilisation.”
A.K. Saxena, an ex-HAL official, says product support won’t be a problem whosoever operates the Dornier 228.
With the UDAN scheme, the government hopes to stimulate air travel by connecting small towns and with concessions on fares—operators have to cap the fare of some seats at Rs 2,500 for an hour-long flight. In the first phase, five operators including Air India’s arm Alliance Air, Air Odisha, Spicejet, Turbo Megha and Capt G.R. Gopinath’s Deccan Charters have been awarded 128 routes connecting 43 airports. The bidding for the second phase concluded sometime ago.
Dubey says UDAN is a great initiative that should have taken off a decade and a half ago. “The Naresh Chandra Committee in 2003 spoke about creating a regional connectivity fund but the recommendation never got implemented,” he says, adding that it was only under the National Civil Aviation Policy 2016 that the government finally took the decision to provide fiscal and monetary incentives for regional connectivity. “The results are for all to see. Market leader Indigo has disrupted its one single-aircraft fleet strategy and has gone for turboprobs. SpiceJet has ordered another 50 turboprops and is considering bringing in 100 seaplanes on top of that,” he says. SpiceJet, which currently operates Bombardier Q400 planes in a 78 seater configuration, last year signed an agreement to buy 50 Q400 aircraft that would be 90 seaters.
Dubey explains that just Delhi and Mumbai have less than 5 per cent of the country’s population but nearly 40 per cent of the Indian air traffic. “There are dozens of places of significant importance in the interiors of India from a population, tourism and industry perspective but lack air connectivity since there was no fiscal of monetary support,” he says. He feels that UDAN is here to stay. “But yes, like in any industry, availability of a three-year subsidy doesn’t guarantee long-term financial success.” It would depend on the operator’s choice of routes, destination, fleet, people, branding and cost structure besides its aligning with large carriers.
Will HAL hit pay dirt with the Dornier? UDAN holds the key.
By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore