Get Your House in Order

While the market is undoubtedly lucrative, developing the RTA 70 and competing in the international market against well established players such as Embraer and ATR will be a formidable challenge.

Issue: 2 / 2020By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

In September last year, the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL) announced the revival of its plans to design and develop a 70-seater civil aircraft for regional aviation. Placed under the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) of the Government of India, NAL was established in the year 1959 and today, it is the only aerospace R&D laboratory in the civilian sector under the Government of India. Designated as the RTA 70, the project to design and develop a regional airliner was first proposed in 2007 with the estimated time frame for it to take to the air as eight years. The responsibility for series production of the newly designed platform was to be assigned to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

A meeting was held on the February 29, 2008 with the Directors and other senior functionaries of various laboratories/institutes of the CSIR and the Defence Research and Development Organisation to familiarise the various R&D organisations of the technology needs of the proposed Regional Transport Aircraft. Dr Kota Harinarayana who was spearheading the RTA 70 project, presented an overview of the aircraft development programme delving into the technical as well its financial aspects. In August 2008 former President Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, popularly called the father of India’s missile programme, stated that with the technology available to the country, production of 70-seater passenger aircraft before 2020 was quite feasible. He even went on to state that the RTA 70 project would lead to a business volume of $15 billion. In September 2008, in a meeting chaired by the then Minister of Defence A.K. Antony, it was decided to undertake the project with foreign collaboration, with state-owned HAL playing the role of an anchor. NAL also displayed a scaled model of the RTA 70 at the biennial civil aviation event called India Aviation 2008 at Begumpet airport, Hyderabad from October 15 to 18, 2008.

In October 2008 the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), an authority that audits and assists the state and central institutions on their accounts and accountability, advised NAL to defer plans to make a 70-seater passenger aircraft. This advice by the CAG was based on the performance of NAL in two of their ongoing projects related to the development of 15-seater Saras aircraft and the two-seater trainer aircraft Hansa. Advice rendered by the CAG was as follows “Keeping in view the problems faced by NAL in Hansa and Saras projects relating to marketing of the aircraft, difficulties in finding an industrial partner and lack of specialised manpower, NAL may review initiation of the new project for development of a 70-seater aircraft.”

Advice by the CAG to withhold the RTA 70 project was perhaps the first major blow for the effort by NAL to develop a 70-seater airliner. However, there were other reasons too for the project to get stalled. While HAL is an establishment under the Ministry of Defence, NAL functions under the Ministry of Science and Technology. Coordination between NAL and HAL functioning under two different Ministries proved to be problematic and there is a view in the Indian aerospace industry that this was possibly a key reason behind the failure of the RTA 70 project. The other reason for the failure of the project was paucity of funds. In 2008, CSIR had taken up a feasibility study according to which the total estimated cost of the project was 7,555 crore out of which 4,355 crore was for the design and development phase and 3,200 crore was for the series production phase of the aircraft. CSIR had sanctioned 300 crore for “proof of concept studies” for the RTA 70 project with the first prototype of the platform expected to take to the air by 2013. Unfortunately, the project suffered from lack of timely and adequate funding which rendered the project untenable. Another episode that was shocking for the industry and was a major setback for the RTA 70 project was the loss of the second prototype of Saras, India’s first indigenously designed civilian aircraft that crashed on March 6, 2009 during a test flight killing all the three crew members on board. The aircraft crashed at a place called Bidadi located West of Bengaluru. The project thus never really got off the ground for a variety of reasons and was subsequently abandoned.

Given the rate of growth of the global as well as the Indian airline industry and the recently launched Regional Connectivity Scheme to provide aerial connectivity especially to remote and inaccessible areas of the country, the market for a 70-seater aircraft both for civil and military use has been estimated be over 400 in the next twenty years. While the market is undoubtedly lucrative, developing the RTA 70 and competing in the international market against well established players such as Embraer and ATR will be a formidable challenge for the Indian aerospace industry. Unless the Indian aerospace industry first gets its house in order and then joins hands with a major existing or emerging global player of repute, the RTA 70 may continue to remain a pipe dream.