Business – Will India ever be a Global Aviation hub?
India’s aviation industry is in a mess.
Pick up any of India’s main papers and stories abound about India’s airlines losing $2 billion in the last financial year. NACIL, the publicly-owned company that runs Air India is in particularly bad shape. The government has rejected a request for a $3 billion bailout package.
Instead, the government wants to overhaul AI’s management within a month and has started the hunt for an experienced chief operating officer. With accumulated losses as of March 31 that total a staggering $1.5 billion, for the first time in its history the airline delayed paying its salaries in June.
None of the other large carriers, including Jet Airways and Kingfisher, are faring much better. Those two have taken excess capacity out of the market and reduced overheads. Airport operators, oil companies, hotels and others have either threatened to introduce or already are operating cash-and-carry regimes with carriers that have, in some cases, significantly exceeded their credit limits.
The spectacular growth rates of 30% to 40% that enticed airlines to ramp up aircraft orders and to devise unsustainable (but until not too long ago universally followed) strategies of buying market share by discounting tickets and adding capacity are now history.
In such a scenario, is there any chance that India will emerge as a global aviation hub?
Looking at its metropolises, including the megacities of Delhi and Mumbai, India should already sport at least one major global aviation hub. Both cities have populations approaching 20 million inhabitants. Delhi is the country’s political capital and arguably its second most important commercial hub. It also does not suffer from the severe space constraints afflicting Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport.
In fact, the masterplan for Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport envisages a capacity of 100 million passengers at the end of its development. The capital hosts embassies of most of the world’s countries, international schools, good hotels and entertainment facilities, a rapidly growing infrastructure and, if one includes the satellite towns of Gurgaon and Noida, more head offices of multinational companies than any other city in India.
Until today, infrastructure has been a major handicap. Lack of efficient connectivity between the domestic and international terminals made transfers from domestic to international flights (and vice versa) an unpredictable nightmare for passengers and airlines. With the airport’s development and the construction of an integrated domestic/international terminal this problem will be resolved by the middle of next year.
“Capacity reduction is still lagging behind demand.”
However, their poor shape and the relatively small size of India’s airlines compared with majors such as Emirates, Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines — all with their already well-established hubs and route networks — will make it difficult for any desi carrier to assert itself.
The merger of Air India and Indian Airlines was conceptually the right way forward. It was aimed at giving the state carrier the size and route network to effectively compete with its domestic and international challengers. Unfortunately, the marriage between the two airlines was never properly consummated and hardly any of its envisaged synergies have materialized.
So what should India’s aviation industry do to extricate itself from this mess?
To begin with, the airlines will have to start addressing the problems that they themselves have caused. This process has already started with Jet and Kingfisher deferring orders for new aircraft, mothballing new deliveries or, where possible, leasing or selling them to foreign carriers.
In short, with the exception of some of the low cost operators, a significant amount of capacity has been taken out of the market. Jet has transferred much of its remaining capacity to its economy-only Jet Konnect product as well as to its low cost subsidiary JetLite. Kingfisher has followed the same strategy by shifting passengers onto its no frills Kingfisher Red product.
On another front, a truce in the price wars has yet to be reached. Yet capacity reduction is still lagging behind demand. With all airlines chasing bums on seats, charging prices that will cover costs and hopefully leave a margin for profit remains difficult in such a hotly-contested market. We will surely see more consolidation or bankruptcies in the medium term.
This is precisely an area where the government should step in. Before the elections, the Ministry of Civil Aviation contemplated allowing up to 49% foreign domestic investment in domestic airlines. This would include foreign airlines as potential investors – something that is currently explicitly prohibited.
It seems obvious that in an industry where average profit margins do not exceed 1.5%, the most likely investors would be other airlines seeking to strengthen their market position, increase their route network or realize economies of scale. Since the elections, however, nothing more has been heard of this proposal.
Another deterrent: The cost of fuel, which in India is among the highest in the world. At current prices, fuel accounts for 45% to 50% of operating costs in India. While the central government has instructed the public-sector oil companies to provide generous credit terms to the airlines, it could do more by naming fuel a declared good which attracts a uniform 4% sales tax.
At present, it is up to individual states to charge fuel taxes as they see fit. Some of them are charging well over 30% – a figure that keeps on rising in absolute terms as fuel prices go up.
Internationally, aviation fuel does not attract any levies in many major markets. For India, this means a distorted market, putting its carriers at a relative disadvantage especially on international routes and making technical or fuelling stops in India for international carriers non-viable.
Furthermore, service tax and other levies have been a bone of contention between the airline industry and the government. A review and streamlining of the entire tax regime would surely be a sensible thing.
Getting the fundamentals right is obviously a prerequisite for the establishment of a successful hub. To date, India has been fairly liberal in its approach to so-called bilateral agreements which regulate how many flights and/or to which points carriers from two contracting countries can serve. This is a good thing. An open bilateral regime stimulates competition and traffic growth as the examples of Singapore and Dubai have shown. It is also instrumental in bringing down the cost of travel and promoting economic growth.
For the sake of its national economy, the current plight of the national carrier should not discourage India from keeping its aviation market open. Instead, liberalization should be used as a tool to make its industry more competitive and its national carrier a leaner, more focussed and especially a more customer-centric organization.
Air India has taken a couple of encouraging steps. It has selected a European hub at Frankfurt, its first outside India. It is phasing out its unreliable fleet of old B777s and B747s. It has been selected as a member of the Star Alliance and is in the process of joining. That will give Air India a greater reach into the coveted U.S. market in addition to its flights from India. It is through its alliance membership that Air India could widen its appeal and route network from India to the rest of the world.
Overall, India either has or is building the necessary ingredients for establishing a successful aviation hub, most likely in Delhi. But to fulfil that promise will require a broader partnership involving alliance partners, regulators, airport operators and local authorities to overcome the many hurdles that remain.
—Ansgar Sickert is managing director of Fraport AG for India and South Asia, based in Delhi
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