Friday, August 12, 2022

On The Fast Track To A Wide Aviation Network

By Bikram Vohra

There was a time not so long ago when flying was the prerogative of the very rich and influential. There were four flights per day from Delhi to Mumbai and now there are 130 plus or one every ten minutes coming to nearly 50,000 flights annually. This makes the route the third heaviest in the world after the 64,991 flights operated between South Korea’s Jeju and Seoul Gimpo airports and 54,519 flights operated between Australia’s Melbourne and Sydney airports.

As the third largest domestic aviation market in the world with just 140 commercial airports of which 35 are international terminals, India has not even touched the outer layer of its potential. Poised to rise to 220 airports over the next two years (although the projection of this number was pegged at 2040) and spurred by the priority given to regional connectivity soon there could be even many more landing strips, opening the interior like it has never been contemplated before. The DNA of the Indian mindset force-fed the concept that flying was an esoteric option not within the realm of the average Indian who must, perforce, opt for a train or bus. This is rapidly changing and no longer is taking a flight the prerogative of the privileged few.

It is here that some startling data emerges. India has only skimmed the surface with 8 percent of her population having taken to the air. That means there is a 92% unused quota still grounded but financially capable of buying a ticket if the degree of convenience is enhanced. If you have to travel by surface transport for several hours from the interior to reach an airport then the alternative of a train or a bus becomes that much more attractive. However, if the access is easier and saves time and effort then flying can open its doors to a billion people. Augmented by helicopter services for short hops over rough terrain, mountains, and roadless desert tracts, the concept of a more intricate network across India is a dynamic that can work. In another two years at the pace, we are setting ourselves we should be in second place globally for domestic airlift. 

According to the Directorate General of Civil Aviation in its assessment, Indigo controlled a 56.2 percent market share, SpiceJet 8.5 percent, Air India 12.1 percent, Go Air 8.2 percent, Air Asia India 5.8 percent, and Vistara 8.7 percent.

Literally waiting in the wings is Jet Airways as it restarts its engines and Akasa Air a newbie that hit the headlines with a massive order for 72 Boeing 737 Max aircraft at the Dubai Airshow last November even as it goes into chocks off position for takeoff.

Perhaps the most important element in the success of the long-term enterprise lies in the selection of the fleet for every entity in this business and the city pairings that link Tier I metros with Tier II and Tier III cities and towns and then filter that down to Tier IV and V semi-rural and rural clusters. It is not going to be as easy as making a blueprint. The initial demand will be for private sector money but will people be ready to put their hands in their pockets for something untried. We have had several airports that were built with no concept of how they would be lucrative, paramount among them Jaisalmer in Rajasthan. 

This $17 million terminal gathered dust and has been so underused and wasteful. Speaking about wasteful, the political ambition to have the prestige of an airport and pressure placed to schedule fights that have no uplift is always a spectre. Air India’s losses accumulated because it flew to gateways where a loss was guaranteed. Before it was sold, only 21 of its 100 routes were profitable. Of that, 12 were international and nine internal. It also flew gas-guzzling 747s on short hauls. A 747-400 regularly operated on the Mumbai – Hyderabad – Jeddah – Kochi – Jeddah – Hyderabad – Mumbai rotation.

According to a report in the International Trade Administration Projects have been announced in locations such as Amritsar, Varanasi, Bhubaneswar, Indore, Raipur, and Trichy. Though AAI owns and operates most airports in India, through ongoing privatisation efforts, companies such as Adani, GMR, and GVK have secured airport projects.

Nevertheless, to activate new routes and destinations the whole plan must be worked out logically and without emotion and grandstanding.

The reality is always harsher than what we factor in when the blueprint is grand. The government cannot take for granted that the private sector will come with open purse strings. The affection for trunk routes and investment in major airports will always be more attractive than changing it with small town untried landing strips. Then again, the emphasis must be on functional and spartan airports rather than luxurious and over the top amenities in an interstate ego trip.

Once the basic airport is designed and cleared, it should serve as the prototype for airports of that category right across the country. An equal sameness should also be mandated for Air Traffic Control, runway aids including ILS facilities. The higher the element of commonality in the new airports the more efficient the network. All airports should, for security reasons, function on an ‘only forward movement’ system. This means a passenger cannot backtrack but must go onwards as is the basic norm in building a terminal and enhances security levels.

Each such airport does generate employment and provide an ever-increasing circle of prosperity in that region. From staff residences to catering to intermodal transport, gradually little townships come up replete with shops, schools, recreation grounds, clubs, community activities, a flourishing social totem pole.

However, the trick is to get it right.

In addition, that depends on getting the fleet mix right. For example, there is no point flying 320s and 737 Max aircraft on one hour inter-regional low density townships. The need would be to look at props like the ATRs or Bombardier’s Q series as in the Dash 8-400. The 40 to 80 seaters are a perfect choice even if they must be leased until the pax uplift grows. Prestige is not the operative word. Similarly, if and where needed heli-services make so much sense. The $14 million Airbus H160 ten-seater might be a bit esoteric but then again, it is a good fit for short hops over inhospitable territory and can fly several sorties a day.

By the same token, runway maintenance and security is very important. Lower tier facilities are more cavalier about intrusions from animals, grass-cutting squads and bird aircraft strike hazards.

In addition, air safety will call for rigorous pilot training and incidents like the one that occurred on May 17 2022 when an Alliance Air ATR 72 overshot the runway at Jabalpur’s Dumna airfield. A burst tyre was cited as the reason but the plane went way past the threshold before touching down. The question of careless debris on the runway is a valid issue and cannot be taken lightly.

We do have a long way to go. Even though India has much the same population and a similar geographical area the Indian fleet of 700 aircraft is puny compared to the 6000 plus in China. The intent today is spearheaded by a certain refreshing optimism combined with pragmatism in the corridors of power. The current Minister of Aviation Jyotiraditya Scindia seems to have got an unusually learned grip of the situation and understands the imperatives.

 The Indian aviation growth graph collapsed during the two year pandemic fallout. The aviation industry was expected to grow at a compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of approximately 10% in the coming decade. Obviously, there has been a slowdown but just like in 2015 when India hit a high of 25% it is possible to pull in the slack of the 2020 to 2022 drop seeing as how it was global. Today the top six metros are teeming with passengers and there is a sudden spurt that will propel the industry to fly into the black if properly handled.

The cost of fuel and the absence in the country of any serious effort to engage in creating alternatives like hydrogen or Sustainable Alternative fuels could cause obstacles in the way of growth. If the cost of flying becomes astronomical then the regional interconnectivity does come into jeopardy. There is also another possible impediment linked to the sort of fuels used and that is India’s carbon footprint. Measures must be in place to ensure we are not in contravention of the commitments made, as we are also signatories to the ICAO mandates and the Paris agreement. With the launch of the Carbon Offset and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), after 2026, it will become mandatory for ICAO’s 191 member states, including India to move on this front. 

As things stand, India is well on the way to making the grand plan a realisation. Everyone is pulling in the same direction but it is necessary to ensure that every entity invests sensibly, uses leasing options, and keeps costs to a minimum and yes, at the risk of being repetitive ensuring the right aircraft for the right routes. 

Horses for Courses…

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