India to firm plans for indigenous regional aircraft in mid-2009

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India plans to firm up the details of an indigenous regional aircraft programme around mid-2009, with a government committee mulling over proposals for a jet and turboprop passenger aircraft.

"The Government wants the Indian industry to develop a passenger aircraft that would harness the technologies we have gained through other indigenous programmes, and put the country in the global aerospace map," says Dr A R Upadhya, director of the National Aerospace Laboratories, an Indian state-owned research institute.

A committee comprising officials from India's defence and civil aviation ministries, state-owned manufacturer Hindustan Aeronautics, NAL, the Aeronautical Development Agency, the Defence Research & Development Organisation and national carrier Air India is studying proposals for the Indian Regional Transport Aircraft. The MoD will be overall in-charge, while HAL will manufacture the aircraft.

Government officials publicly say they would like to have an aircraft in service by 2013, but they privately admit that the target could shift to the second half of the next decade after the committee presents its findings.

"It could take about three years to complete the design work and another three years to manufacture the aircraft. A more realistic target for delivery would be around 2016," says a senior bureaucrat. The main customers will be Indian airlines, which will be under pressure to buy a national aircraft, he adds.

NAL began studying a regional aircraft programme two years ago and displayed a model of a 70-seat turboprop at last week's India Aviation 2008 show in Hyderabad. Upadhya says the agency's studies have shown there is likely to be higher demand for a turboprop in the coming decades.

"Fuel efficiency will continue to be a major issue and turboprops will be in demand as a result of this. The regional jet market is also crowded with five incumbents, while there are few new plans for turboprops. We can help to plug that gap," he adds.

HAL, on the other hand, is leaning towards a regional jet based on a multi-role military transporter that it is jointly developing with several Russian companies. A model of the military aircraft was on display last week, but the programme has been in limbo for several months due to unidentified differences between the partners.

"If these differences are not resolved, then HAL could go on its own. It is then likely to make an even stronger pitch for its design to be considered for the regional aircraft programme," says a source close to the company.

Regardless of the committee's decision, industry sources say that all the agencies are committed to working together to come up with the aircraft. "It is a national project that has been mandated by the state, and they have no choice," says a government official.