It takes less than an hour to fly from Guwahati to Aizawl. But come February 10, it will be near impossible to reach the Mizoram capital from Guwahati in less than 15 hours because the solitary direct air connection between the two cities will cease to exist. It could take up to a day to make the journey by air, with layovers at either Delhi or Kolkata, or in some cases, both.

There is no railway link between the two cities. Road travel is an option, but the 470 km distance on a serpentine, and in parts, broken highway, takes almost 15 hours to traverse.

According to the existing airline schedule, on February 10, the shortest flight time between the two cities – separated by an aerial distance of 280 km – will be over 16 hours with a stop at Kolkata. It is possible to fly from Delhi to San Francisco – 12,000 km away as the crow flies – in less time.

The termination of the sole Guwahati-Aizawl connection has come because of Jet Airways’s decision to suspend all operations in the North East except for flights from Guwahati to other parts of the country. While the move was triggered by the airline’s financial woes, it is yet another setback to air connectivity within the region. The Modi government’s promises of a turnaround in this sector have not been realised.

The first snag

Nowhere is the failure more evident than the government’s flagship regional connectivity scheme, UDAAN – an acronym for the Hindi phrase “Ude Desh Ka Aam Naagrik, which loosely translates into “Let the common man fly”.

The scheme, launched in 2017, is intended to put smaller cities on India’s air map by way of fiscal incentives, infrastructure support, procedural simplifications and monetary subsidies. The North East, infamous for some of the worst roads in India and a patchy railway network, was particularly expected to benefit from this.

The airport in Shillong, Meghalaya’s picturesque capital and one of the North East’s most popular tourist destinations, was the only airport in the North East to be chosen in the first phase of the scheme. The Hyderabad-based Air Deccan won exclusive rights to connect it to Aizawl, Agartala, Silchar, Dimapur and Imphal. But Airport Authority of India records reveal that the carrier only operated flights to Agartala and Dimapur for a total of 10 days from May 1 to May 10 in 2018.

Following the suspension of services by Air Deccan, Shillong’s air connectivity is now back to status quo: a lone Air India-operated daily flight to Kolkata, which travellers describe as “uncertain”. “The flight gets cancelled so often that I have started avoiding it,” said frequent flier Patricia Mukhim, the editor of Shillong Times.

Repeated failures

When the second leg of the scheme was launched in November 2017, the Ministry of Civil Aviation announced the opening of 92 new air routes in the North East. Six airports – Rupsi, Jorhat, Lilabari and Tezpur in Assam, and Tezu and Pasighat in Arunachal Pradesh – and 12 routes, were lapped up by bidders.

Only two of these 12 routes are currently operational – Jorhat-Kolkata, connected by Indigo Airlines, and the SpiceJet-serviced Lilabari-Kolkata, according to Airport Authority of India’s records. A third connection between Tezpur and Kolkata, operated by the Delhi-based Zoom Air, ran for little over three months, from April 26 to July 30, according to the records. “They stopped due to some technical issues,” said a senior Airport Authority of India official based in Guwahati, who did not want to be identified.

The airports of Rupsi and Tezu are not even functional yet. “Under the RCS [regional connectivity scheme], only one new airport has come up in the North East – Pasighat,” confirmed the official. Apart from the UDAAN connection to Kolkata, which started from January 15, Air India also operates flights from Pasighat to Guwahati via Lilabari four times a week.

Neither Zoom Air nor Air Deccan responded to requests seeking a comment on the reasons for the withdrawal of their services.

Jet Airways has decided to suspend all operations in the North East except for flights into and out of Guwahati from other parts of India. Air India operates an erratic flight from Shillong.

Political gimmick?

Aviation sector analysts said the scheme was falling apart because it was geared more towards garnering political benefits than actually enhancing connectivity. “There is a very strong line between making an announcement for political and electoral reasons and actually making a scheme work,” said Mark Martin of Martin Consulting, an aviation consultancy based in West Asia that works with airlines in India and South Asia. “Some of these airports, which were announced as part of the scheme, are not even ready,” said Martin. “How can you announce a route without terminals?”

The scheme was also riddled with several systemic flaws, Martin said. “They have overcomplicated the scheme, involving too many agencies – the Centre, the state, the AAI [Airport Authority of India],” he said. “Besides, the government has done nothing to make business easier for airline companies. The government imposed a 5% duty on jet fuel five months ago, which has raised the price of fuel by over 10%.”

A senior regional Airport Authority of India official also conceded that the UDAAN scheme, in its current form, was not viable. “Small companies will not be able to pull it off,” the official said.

Flying from Guwahati

Even as new connections have failed to take off in the North East and many existing connections have been suspended from the region’s smaller airports recently, passenger volume in the Guwahati airport has more than doubled in the last five years, according to official records accessed by Experts say this is proof of the need to ramp up connections in the region’s smaller airports.

Officials, however, claim that the high passenger volume in Guwahati is because people prefer to fly out of the North East from Guwahati, where air connections are more reliable. “Passengers from Jorhat, Dibrugarh and Shillong are coming to Guwahati because nowadays the roads are very good,” said an Airport Authority of India official.

Some flyers, however, do not quite agree. “There is just too much time wasted on Shillong to Guwahati travel,” said Shillong-based theatre artiste Lapdiang Syiem. The road journey between Shilling and Guwahati can take between two-and-a-half hours to three hours, depending on traffic. “The Guwahati airport is getting way too crowded and chaotic. It is a pain for regular travellers.”