The helicopter service is one of the fastest way to travel between islands in Andaman and Nicobar. But can tourists make use of this service?
Pawan Hans Ltd (a government-owned company) operates helicopter services in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Theoretically, these helicopters are available for use by anyone – local or tourist. However, as I was to discover during my trip to the Andamans, from a practical perspective, it may not be a feasible means of transport for tourists visiting the islands. Here are a few reasons why:
The Booking Hurdle
While the official website of Pawan Hans has an online booking facility for helicopter services, when I checked the website in January/February 2019 there was no option available for booking of helicopter trips in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Which means that bookings would need to be done directly or through an agent in the Andamans, which can be a cumbersome process.
On average, there is usually only one service per day on most routes (which may not be daily). A few routes may have 2 or 3 services per day, but even then the number of seats available are negligible because the helicopters can seat only about 6 to 8 people at the maximum. This means that tickets are very limited, and, obviously, they sell out very quickly.
The Numbers Are Not Small
When compared to the government ferries the prices of helicopter tickets are at least 5 to 6 times higher. For example, a ferry ticket from Port Blair to Little Andman costs about INR 500/-, whereas a helicopter ticket would cost upwards of INR 3500/-. To put this in perspective, this might cost as much or more than your air ticket from Chennai or Kolkata to Port Blair. So, if you’re a budget traveller or backpacker this might not be the sensible option. In fact, the helicopter service is mostly used by “islanders” and government officials as they can buy tickets at a highly subsidised rate.
Confirmation? Not Really
If you manage to overcome the hurdles mentioned in 1 and 2 above, and you have the cash to spare to buy tickets, you’re still not home safe. Why? Well, these helicopters also double up for duty for medical evacuations or urgent movement of personnel between islands. So, basically, if there is someone who needs medical attention, they would automatically be higher up on the priority list and you might need to give up your seat for that person. If the person needs to be moved in a stretcher, four to five other passengers might be left behind. There could also be other reasons for you not getting your seat on a chopper even though you may hold a confirmed ticket.
In fact, most seats are booked by government officers who have to travel between the islands on work. This uncertainty of getting bumped off exists for them too, so you can only imagine that a tourist would fall lower down on the priority list.
The permissible luggage weight per passenger on a helicopter is limited to 10kgs. Even that much may not be allowed if the helicopter is already carrying a heavy load. Most people only board choppers with a small backpack at most. So, if you’re carrying a suitcase or a backpack, you won’t just have issues in terms of weight but also size. Basically, it’s not likely to work out unless, by some miracle, that chopper is flying almost empty on that route that day.
Simply put, for a tourist to use a helicopter in the Andaman and Nicobar islands is far more difficult than one would expect it to be. This is primarily because of the limited number of choppers in service, the high demand for the few seats available and the fact that these choppers are simultaneously used for medical evacuation and other purposes. For the time being, at least, I’d recommend getting onto the ferries instead. Yes, it’s likely to take longer and yes, the views won’t be as splendid, but at least you’re more likely to get to the place you want to go with all your luggage in tow!
Disclaimer: The information included in this post is based on information provided by people I met in the Andamans when I was trying to find out how I could use the helicopter service and also based on signs placed at helipads and offices that I visited. Needless to say, due to the many reasons listed above, I didn’t get to fly on a chopper myself.