LIFE HAS BEEN hectic for Praful Patel, who was appointed Minister of State for Civil Aviation in May. Under his guidance, the Civil Aviation Ministry is planning to privatise airports and has earmarked 50 billion rupees (HK$8.85 billion) for an airport modernisation proposal. 'We have worked out plans to redo the 15 airports and everything would be in place by the end of 2006,' Mr Patel said. The minister also intimated that a decision to allow Air-India to go ahead with its fleet expansion plans would be taken this year. At the inaugural ceremony for Air-India's flight of Mumbai to Los Angeles at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport on June 11, the minister was the guest of honour at the ceremonial flag-off. 'The growth achieved in recent months, particularly on the India-US-India sector has been remarkable,' Mr Patel said of Air-India's newly added international route. He described the occasion as a moment of great pride. Mr Patel said the United States had been a major thrust area for Air-India as flights were gradually increased from 10 per week in December 2002 to 23 at present. The routes serve New York, Newark, Chicago and Los Angeles, offering as many as 10,000 seats per week. The US west coast flight is a new milestone for Air-India. On the government's role in developing the national airline, Mr Patel said: 'You will see a vibrant Air-India within a year, ready to take on the rest of the leading airlines in the world.' He said he intended to have Air-India augment its fleet as soon as possible. He added that the constraints that Air-India faced in the past would be removed so the airline could move forward more quickly. 'For more than a decade neither of the two airlines had purchased any new aircraft. They have only taken planes on dry lease. 'My ministry will lay special emphasis on strengthening the two carriers so there is healthy competition with the private sector,' he said. Mr Patel also ruled out the issue of privatising the national air carriers. 'We don't intend to privatise Air-India. We feel Air-India should grow much faster and there will be a 100 per cent capacity increase in the national carrier in the next one to two years.' He said his priority was to strengthen Air-India and Indian Airlines, the domestic carrier, and bring them back to their past glory. 'We will ensure Air-India is made capable of capturing inbound and outgoing traffic to various foreign destinations,' he said. The minister aims to give the air industry an overhaul and will ensure that the fleet acquisition plan of Air-India, aircraft refurbishment and the aviation policy will be ready by the end of this year. In July, the minister also unveiled a two metre-high statue of Air-India's founder, J.R.D. Tata, at the airline's offices at the Old Airport Complex in Mumbai. The sculpture serves as a reminder of Tata's high ideals and the airline's ongoing pursuit of excellence.