The turmoil in the Indian airline industry during the month of October has produced results that can be, only mildly described as, significant. In just four weeks, castles built over the last four or more years, have come crashing down.
By the end of 2008, the Indian airline industry which accounts for less than 2% of the global airline market, will contribute about $2 billion, or over 33%, of the total global losses. This dire, lop-sided situation, which can be attributed to only primary factor – gross imbalance. It is ironic, that the demand – supply imbalance in the Indian airline industry, is resulting in this imbalance between market share and losses share.
How did the situation become so dire?
Over the last 4 years, the Indian airline industry has created this imbalance thanks to rampant and blind expansion. It was all on auto-pilot, thanks to low fuel prices and a robust economy.
In 2008, along came the “perfect storm” and the reality struck home. Skyrocketing fuel prices since late 2007, married to a populist fuel pricing policy by the central and state governments in India which grossly overtaxed aviation turbine fuel (ATF), and sent the already high fuel prices in to the stratosphere, followed by a slowing economy thanks to the global financial credit crises and subsequent meltdown of demand, and uncontrolled costs.
Capt. G.R. Gopinath’s Air Deccan believed in bring airlines to the masses. To expand customer base Air Deccan expanded in to the smallest of cities, and given that, India is an extremely price sensitive country, offered fares that were at par with, or just marginally above, that of the Indian Railways, known to be one of the most economical railways in the world.
Along with with Air Deccan (now Kingfisher Red), low cost carriers (LCCs) Air Sahara (now JetLite), SpiceJet, IndiGo, and GoAir commenced. India seemed destined for low cost paradise, as even full service carriers, Indian Airlines (now Air India), Jet Airways, and Kingfisher Airlines, scrambled to develop low cost fare models of their own.
Thanks to the unbridled expansion, HR costs went in to orbit. From expatriate flight crews to the ground handlers, people were at a premium, and airlines paid, and paid way to well.
Another problem is, India does not have adequate full service airports, let alone, separate low cost airports like Europe and North America.
At all major airports across the country the skies became heavily congested, and it was not uncommon to hear an announcement from the Captain “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to Delhi. We are 25th in line for landing, and should land 2 hours from now”. This on a 1.5 hour flight.
The higher costs of full service airports, these delays, and systemic inefficiencies eroded the advantage LCCs in Europe and North America enjoy, i.e., making 9+ flights per day per aircraft, compared to 6 or less in India, and only added to the operating cost burden on all airlines, particularly the LCCs.
As global fuel prices rose, thanks to the fuel taxation policy in India, best described as demented, which makes ATF about 70% costlier than global standards, the impact on airlines was even more severe.
The airlines began to bleed profusely. Unable to sustain, airlines have been raising their prices over the last year, in some non-metro routes, by over 100%. The price sensitive Indian market, particularly in Tier II cities began to slow down.
In parallel, along came the economic slowdown. Demand slowed, and passengers across the board began tightening their belts. The bottom fell out of the market, as passengers shifted from the skies back to rail and bus. At the same time, new airports at Hyderabad and Bangalore were commissioned in the first half of 2008, these airports are far away from the city, and the long and costly commute, along with the rising air fares, totally erased demand in the regional routes, the demand-strength on which LCCs had based their massive expansion plans.
Domestic traffic has contracted over the last four months, declining by as much as 19% in Sep-08. Growth has fallen from 33%+ to over -20% within the span of just six months.
In desperation, airlines have been resorting to steps, hitherto unthinkable, to stop their bleeding and cash burn.
To bolster yields per flight, airlines have cut capacity by 17% in the six months Apr to Sep 2008, and the further increase in prices have had even more impact on demand. Jet and Kingfisher entered in to an alliance, which left the jaws of most Indians agape on the floor, given the severe competition between them. Staff, including precious flight crew, started getting the axe. CEOs of three airlines are no longer there. Despite a 20%+ reduction in fuel prices (thanks to taxation cuts and falling crude prices), no fare reductions are being passed on to the passenger. The massive fleet expansions have been put on hold. Aircraft deliveries are being delayed. Aircraft already produced are being sold off to other global airlines. Aircraft in the fleet are being returned back. Disagreements have commenced, and litigation will ensue, but the airlines have no choice. Their backs are against the wall.
The reduction in fuel prices will provide short term relief, but the outstanding fuel bills of the airlines are gigantic. Capacity reduction will have its impact only if properly rationalised with demand.
While, domestic demand crashed through the floor, the one bright spot was international traffic growth, which has remained consistently robust at 10% year-on-year for the first half of FY 2008-09. However, as the global economic slowdown has started taking its toll on international travel, many carriers, such as Singapore Airlines, Finnair, Austrian, British Airways, and KLM have announced capacity cuts and withdrawal of service. At the same time, with the Middle East being a robust market, Gulf carriers continue to grow. Emirates has become the largest foreign carrier in India and will aggressively expand from 132 to 163 weekly services over the next six months.
I am reminded of the Chinese saying “may you live in interesting times”. The rest of 2008 and whole of 2009 is going to be very interesting indeed. The medium term growth for the Indian airline industry is bright, but only for those who survive.