Booming demand from India's tourism and offshore oil exploration markets has persuaded Pawan Hans, the Indian state-owned helicopter charter company, to add a further 20 helicopters to its fleet in the coming 12 months.

The New Delhi-based operator, which currently has a fleet size of 35, will invest 4.96 billion rupees ($126 million) to ride on the booming Indian economy, it was revealed at a parliamentary session on the country's civil aviation industry last week.

"Many well-heeled visitors to the country find that helicopters are an excellent way to move around the country. That, together with visits to remote religious sites in the country, is a major driver of the demand for helicopter services from the tourism industry," says an industry source.

"The offshore oil exploration industry is also booming in India. Many private companies are looking to set up their own fleets, but there is a shortage of helicopters right now and it is an excellent time for Pawan Hans to take advantage."

The company currently operates 17 Eurocopter SA365N Dauphins, nine Eurocopter AS365N3 Dauphins, three Bell206s, one Robinson R-44, two Mil MI-172s and four Bell407s. Industry sources say that the company is likely to buy a combination of Eurocopter and Bell helicopters as part of its expansion.

Pawan Hans also plans to set up dedicated helipads in several Indian cities, including the capital New Delhi and financial centre Mumbai, with some investment from the private sector. It will be the lead agency in charge of identifying the sites, constructing the facilities, and managing them. Several Indian airlines and private aircraft operators have been eyeing helipads as a way to beat the bad traffic on the roads and ease congestion at airports.

The company also plans to expand its helicopter maintenance, repair and overhaul operations in Mumbai, and invest in a new national flying training school. The shortage of trained pilots is a major problem and sources say that several Pawan Hans crew have left to join private charter companies, which offer better salaries and benefits. To overcome this, the company plans to train its engineers to become pilots in return for a 10-year bond.

It is also considering operating scheduled air services to islands such and Andaman and Nicobar, and could acquire 18-24 seater Dornier aircraft or seaplanes for this, according to Indian news reports. The company has also reportedly been approached by the Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka governments to provide air services to tourism and pilgrimage sites in those countries.

Source: Flight International