Tell us by May 4 if flights to Shimla will be launched: Supreme Court

New Delhi: Taking strong note of lack of air connectivity to Shimla, the Supreme Court today directed the competent authorities to tell it by May 4 whether air services to the Himachal Pradesh capital would be launched and warned of issuing an order if the answer is "no".

"If 'no' is the categorical answer, we will pass an order against those responsible for this," a bench headed by Chief Justice T S Thakur said.

The bench also directed the competent authorities, including the Civil Aviation Ministry, to place the copy of direction issued by them before the bench takes up the matter for next hearing on May 4.

It said that its interim order, issued on December 16 last year, shall not prevent these authorities from enforcing the obligation of providing ten per cent of the capacity deployed on Category-I routes (trunk routes) to Category-II routes.

Under the government's Route Dispersal Guidelines, Category-I routes are the busy routes connecting major metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Chennai, while Category-II are those in remote and difficult parts of the country, including Jammu and Kashmir, Northeast and the island territories.

Counsel representing various competent authorities like the Ministry and aviation regulator DGCA said all of them favoured launching of these services. To this, the bench said "we hope there is no political game in this."

The apex court had last week taken exception to the lack of air connectivity to places in the North East and Shimla's Jubbarhatti airport and rapped the government and Air India for "promoting interests" of private operators.

"Is it not part of your policy guidelines to provide services to far-flung places like North East and Shimla," a bench comprising the Chief Justice and Justice R Banumathi had asked, charging the government with "only promoting interests of operators" and not thinking about connectivity.

The bench, which had earlier sought a status report from Air India on feasibility of air service connecting Shimla with Chandigarh and Delhi, was unimpressed and said, "we do not want this dilly-dallying. We thought you will do something, but things remained as they were."

Additional Solicitor General P S Patwalia, appearing for the state-run carrier, sought time and said Air India would come out with a response. The court then posted the matter for further hearing for today.

Earlier, the apex court had wanted to know from the airline about its "ultimate plan" to connect Shimla with New Delhi and Chandigarh and had asked Air India CMD to place a report within six weeks.

It had however ordered maintenance of status quo on the December 7, 2015 direction passed by the Himachal Pradesh High Court asking Air India, Airports Authority of India and others concerned to start scheduled flights on a trial basis from Jubbarhatti airport, 22 km from Shimla.
Solicitor General Ranjit Kumar, who had appeared for Air India CMD, submitted that the airline is examining the suggestions to at least connect Shimla and Chandigarh with 40-seater aircraft as the runway at the Airport was very small.

The Solicitor General had explained various constrains, including the non-availability of refuelling facility in Shimla and certain security hazards. He said the issue of economic viability was also there. He had also told the bench that two tourist towns -- Kullu and Dharamsala -- were already connected by air.

Air India had challenged the Himachal Pradesh High Court order to start scheduled flights on trial basis. It had said that other objections and viability gap funding, if any, will be sorted out later.

The high court had passed the order on a petition by a local resident on the possibility of resuming Delhi-Shimla flight service from Jubbar-Hatti airport, which remains non-operational for past three year.

The government is in the process of finalising a draft civil aviation policy, which proposes changes in the route dispersal guidelines dealing with flying to remote destinations that could be socially important but not economically viable.

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