The much-publicised, opulent wedding of BJP president Nitin Gadkari’s son in Nagpur last fortnight saw as many as 30 aircraft being chartered to ferry guests for the three-day event. The fleet: two planes from Karnataka, an Airbus from Delhi with high-profile guests, private planes from Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. But it’s not Gadkari alone. The trend of politicians, across parties, using private aircraft and choppers has of late seen a huge increase. Once used mainly for election campaigns to save time and take netas to far-flung places, choppers and private planes are now routinely used by them for private trips—even to places well-connected by commercial flights.
A BJP leader puts this in perspective: “These days even small-time netas hire choppers and planes despite the option of commercial flights. Taking chartered aircraft has become a status symbol.” Venkaiah Naidu, for instance, took a chartered plane this June to attend a party function in Mumbai. He flew back to Delhi within a few hours. Another senior leader flew to Mumbai in a private plane to attend a wedding.
Taking chartered flights means huge bills: the average cost per hour is Rs 2 lakh for private jets, Rs 70-90 lakh for choppers. A flight from Delhi to Chennai and back could cost around Rs 12 lakh—perhaps more, depending on time on the ground, for which the hiring rate remains the same. Capt A. Ranganathan, an aviation expert, says, “The use of corporate aircraft is uncontrolled. In Delhi and Mumbai, during peak hours, general flights are embargoed and therefore delayed. But many chartered aircraft are bulldozed into the slots because some mantri or the other is on board.”
Since flying private is seen as a status symbol and a reflection of one’s stature in a political party, the desire to be seen doing so runs high in all parties across the country. BSP general secretary Satish Chandra Mishra is known to use only private carriers for party and personal work. In Madhya Pradesh, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan uses only private planes. According to sources, a week ago, Chauhan flew to three different weddings of party workers in a private plane. A BJP functionary in charge of organising these trips points out that “the CM is popular with party workers because he makes sure he attends every ceremony he’s invited for. He can’t cover the distances by road so he has to fly. Private planes ferry him at least 10 days in a month.” He says private planes are also hired in Madhya Pradesh for the trips of senior party leaders in Delhi.
The Cost Of High Flying
In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi is said to frequently use the services of a close friend who runs an aircraft charter business based in Gurgaon. “The younger generation in the Congress uses these services very regularly. Using schedule flights is out of the questions,” says a source. Among the regular users of chartered aircraft in the Congress are Union surface transport minister Kamal Nath, minister of state Jyotiraditya Scindia and party general secretary Digvijay Singh. Civil aviation minister Praful Patel (of the Nationalist Congress Party) is also known to be a regular patron of chartered services and uses them a couple of times a month.
Perhaps it has become acceptable even in the RSS, which traditionally professes austere living. Suresh Soni, a Sangh heavyweight, recently took a private chopper to attend a wedding in Nagpur. Ananth Kumar, a former civil aviation minister and therefore used to the idea of flying more than many others, is known to use private choppers to attend functions. On October 10, in the thick of the Karnataka crisis, Ananth Kumar flew to Baroda in Gujarat to attend a book release function of a Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha functionary and got back to Karnataka the same day.
The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), too, confirms this huge increase in chartered traffic. “It’s only a bother when these flights ask for a priority landing because then air traffic controllers begin to complain that other flights are held up for take-off or landing,” says a senior DGCA official. “Satellite airports are the need of the hour since chartered traffic is increasing so rapidly. Delhi-Mumbai and Delhi-Chennai are the two sectors in which many private aircraft are hired.”
Ranganathan highlights the perils: “The dangers are plenty. There are no flight duty time limitations (FDTL) for private operators. There is no proper surveillance of their safety standards. Private pilots do not undergo regular simulator training like airline pilots.” Despite all this, netas, it seems, love to fly private—as frequently as possible.
By Amba Batra Bakshi and Prarthana Gahilote