Hiccups galore as Shimla heli-taxi service takes off

By Vishal Gulati

Shimla, June 7 (IANS) Not much homework seems to have been done before launching a helicopter service between the Himachal Pradesh capital and Chandigarh. The fare for the 20-minute journey might be an affordable Rs 2,999, but when one factors in the additional cost at both ends and the time spent at the two airports, it would be more practical to undertake the journey by road at a fraction of the cost.

“The government has started the heli-taxi service between Shimla and Chandigarh, which the locals and tourists have been demanding for long.

“But the government has not realised that a traveller will end up paying much more than the price specified for the air fare and also spend extra hours of travelling between Shimla and the airport,” Shimla resident and frequent traveller Mohit Sood told IANS.

Adding connectivity between Shimla and its airport is a larger issue for attracting travellers, he added.

Travel agent Anil Thakur said the normal taxi fare between Shimla and its airport is between Rs 1,200 and Rs 1,500, which could be too high for a person who is travelling at an affordable air fare of Rs 2,999.

“The more important thing is bad road connectivity between Shimla and the Jubbarhatti airport. It takes at least one hour to reach the airport from here (Shimla) and that too if there is no traffic congestion in between,” he said.

“Connectivity is the key to tourism. There is no connecting flight in Chandigarh with the helicopter taxi’s arrival and departure timings. Only those keen to have a joy ride will prefer to opt for the heli-taxi service,” he added.

The state government, in association with helicopter service operator Pawan Hans Ltd, launched the to-and-fro heli-taxi service on the Chandigarh-Shimla route on June 4.

Chief Minister Jai Ram Thakur has also offered his official helicopter on the route.

Initially plying twice a week on Monday and Friday, the helicopter will take off from Shimla’s airport at Jubbarhatti at 8 a.m. and reach the Chandigarh International Airport at 8.20 a.m.

And from Chandigarh to Shimla, the flight will take off at 9 a.m. and reach Shimla at 9.20 a.m.

The frequency of heli-taxi service would be increased depending on response of the passengers, the government said.

The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation has started a shuttle bus service between Shimla and the airport for the heli-taxi passengers. The ticket is Rs 200 per seat.

Members of the hospitality industry, who say they were not taken into confidence before its launch, favour the setting up of a helipad within Shimla that will ease the travel time.

“For domestic flights, a traveller has to reach the airport at least two hours before the flight departure. Practically one has to leave Shimla three hours in advance. By that time, one can reach Chandigarh directly by road from Shimla,” hotelier Sanjay Chauhan said.

Similarly, travellers from Chandigarh have to report at the airport two hours before the flight after covering the 20 km journey by a cab that costs Rs 400. Travellers from Shimla would have to undertake a similar journey.

The 115-km journey between Shimla and Chandigarh normally takes over three hours by a car and four hours by a bus. A seat on an air-conditioned Volvo bus costs Rs 300.

The government says the Shimla-Chandigarh flight would be operated from Sanjauli, some eight km away, after a new helipad shortly becomes operational there.

Travel agents say the government should initially operate the heli-taxi service from the Annandale ground, the picturesque flat highland just three kilometres from Shimla’s Ridge, till the Sanjauli one is operational. But then, the Annadale ground is controlled by the Indian Army.

D.P. Bhatia, liaison officer with the Shimla-based Oberoi Group of hotels, told IANS that tourists travel as per their convenience and not according to government’s.

“If someone is travelling to Shimla in a heli-taxi on Monday, he or she can’t wait for three days for his return journey as the next departure scheduled flight is on Friday. If the government is serious on attracting business tourists, then it has to increase the frequency of sorties.

“Moreover, the high-end tourists, especially foreigners, normally travel in groups and this 20-seater chopper is too small for them. So practically it’s not going to serve any purpose to ease their travel,” Bhatia added.

Himachal Pradesh, known for its apples and picture-perfect tourist spots, attracted 19.6 million tourists last year, 2.9 times of its population. It has 63 operational helipads across the state, as per the state’s Economic Survey 2017-18.

Kullu and Manali are tourist hotspots, followed by Shimla and Dharamsala, the seat of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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