A few years ago, India's airline industry was flying high. A booming economy made India one of the fastest growing and most competitive aviation markets in the world. Six new carriers launched while established airlines laid on new routes and bought new jets. In the last four years, Indian carriers ordered 400 Boeing and Airbus jetliners worth about $37 billion.
Brace for impact. The global recession has hit air carriers everywhere, but a sharp decline in passenger numbers is especially bad news for India. With oil prices rising to $73 a barrel, Indian airlines which carry just 2% of the world's passengers could sustain more than $2.5 billion in losses this year, accounting for one-fourth of the projected $9 billion in losses for the entire industry, according to the International Air Transport Association. Weighed down by overcapacity, debt and the government's refusal to provide bailouts, Indian carriers are being forced to slash their operations and reduce ticket prices. "Indian aviation is undergoing a regime change in just four years," says Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation, a New Delhi-based research firm.
That change includes deferring aircraft deliveries, cancelling orders, rationalizing routes and trimming staff to stave off financial collapse. "It's going to be tough, but we mean business," says Praful Patel, India's civil aviation minister. At the same time, three of the country's largest carriers state-owned Air India, and private players Jet Airways and Kingfisher are trying to attract more passengers by turning their full-service domestic fleets into budget businesses. In January, India's budget airlines fleet totaled 75 jets, compared with 120 full-service planes. The Center for Asia Pacific Aviation's Kaul reckons that by the end of the year, the skies will be dominated by up to 160 low-fare jets as companies switch to budget operations.
Hardest hit by the economic downturn has been national carrier Air India: It reported annual losses of $1 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31, along with an accumulated debt of $3.5 billion; that debt load is expected to rise to $7 billion by 2012 if it takes delivery of 111 new aircraft already on order. Air India alone accounts for 10% of the total projected losses for the global airline industry this year even though it carries just 0.35% of global traffic. Air India is suffering from an aging fleet and a bloated staff roster of 31,000 permanent employees and 20,000 contract staff; its labor costs amount to 18% of its total operating expense, the highest ratio in the world, according to Patel.
With no bailout help from New Delhi in sight, Air India is bidding to bring its profitable international budget brand Air India Express to Indian turf. Air India Express, which has been flying routes to the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the past five years, will configure 10 of its 57 planes for budget flights by September, says Air India managing director Arvind Jadhav. The company plans to increase the number of budget flights a day from 25 initially to 43 by October. Ticket fares will be down 25% making it attractive for fliers. The logic, says aviation minister Patel, "is to fill up seats and operate at lower costs." Unlike its parent, the profitable Air India Express operates as an independent company with lower overheads. Besides, with no business seats they will be able to pack in more people at a time when the passenger count for all airlines is down 30% since last year.
Following similar logic, private players Jet Airways and Kingfisher, owned by the liquor baron Vijay Mallya, are expanding existing budget operations to try to increase business during the economic downturn. They aren't starting from scratch. Both airlines already had rechristened budget carriers Jet Lite and Kingfisher Red acquired in 2007. Now they are transferring capacity to the economy fleets. Kingfisher Red jets are flying more routes; as a result, about 75% of all domestic passengers that now fly with Kingfisher are traveling budget class, up from 50% a year ago. Meanwhile, Jet Airways, India's oldest private player, has converted some of its jets by removing all business-class seats and rebranding them as JetKonnect giving the company two budget brands. "It gives us the flexibility and speed to deploy capacity and reverse it to meet changing trends," said Sudheer Raghavan, chief commercial officer of Jet. Launched in May, JetKonnect offers 40% lower fares and plans to take the current 130 flights a week to 160 by October.
Officials for both carriers say they hope to resume normal operations once the economy rebounds. But analysts say that may be difficult because the industry has yet to solve a basic problem: too many airlines flying too many flights in a country that, despite its economic growth, is relatively poor. India's airlines are now crowding into the budget market, just as they crowded into regular and premium air travel services a few years ago. "With everybody fighting for the same piece of business, this could once again create overcapacity and fuel fare wars," says Ankur Bhatia, executive director of Bird Group, a New Delhi company that provides technology to the travel industry. Lowering fares may attract more travelers but it may not improve the overall financial health of the industry. "To make profits while shifting business models, the airlines have to think, act, breathe and be low cost," Amitabh Malhotra, managing director of investment bank NM Rothschild & Sons in Mumbai. "That doesn't happen overnight." Adds Patel, India's aviation minister: "This time every airline will learn a lesson the hard way."