Friday, May 24, 2024

Is There A Downside To India’s Aviation Surge?

Bikram Vohra

There is no dearth of insightful narratives on India’s fast track. Everyone is gung-ho and excited. After a long drought and a less-than-inspiring graph, the arrow is moving upward at nearly 8% annually, the swiftest in the world of aviation.

There is no gainsaying the fact that this spike has increased connectivity, given more than a passing nudge to economic growth, and spurred job creation. A million in the United States itself after Boeing was given its third-largest-ever order by Air India. Air India is ordering 220 Boeing aircraft valued at $34 billion. The orders include 190 737 Max aircraft, 20 of Boeing’s 787s, and 10 of its 777Xs. The purchase also includes customer options for an additional 50 737 Max’s and 20 of its 787s, totaling 290 airplanes for a total of $45.9 billion at the list price. The order also included 250 aircraft from Airbus.

A total of 1200 aircraft come in from other carriers, with Indigo looking at 500 more planes after its deal with Turkish Airlines. The fledgling Akasa is also going in for 72 narrowbodies as it sets its eyes on a competitive edge.

But before we stun ourselves with hurrahs, there are several other factors that kick in, and each one of them is essential in itself.

At the very top, there are safety concerns as the skies get denser with traffic courtesy of the increase in the number of flights, there will be pressure on air traffic control, and there is far more likelihood of accidents. This is not to create a scare, but it does involve the need to ensure a very high level of safety measures at regional airports. You cannot have massively different levels of safety and avionics at point-to-point destinations.

There is no doubt that there will be a very major pressure on systems, and the infrastructure will come under stress. While it is heartening to see that the number of Indian passengers is increasing numbers exponentially at present, the national network is not ready to handle such a spike, and this could lead to multiple delays and backups.

The purchase of so many aircraft, whether bought or leased, means the need for a well-trained crew not only in cabins and flight decks but also on the ground where support systems in the past have been lacking. Yes, we’ll see a negative impact on the environment, and since the aviation industry is a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, that could be hurtful. While there is a lot of talk about making the air cleaner with sustainable options, the fact is that very little is done on the ground to dramatically change things.

Another point that we tend to forget is that of the economic cycles. The COVID spectre has not yet ended, and every now and then, there is this feeling that it might strike again. Any such instability could spark a downturn as people change plans and decide to stay at home. We will also have to worry a lot about noise pollution and the concern it can become for communities on the flight path. Not to state the obvious, but it will be at least 10 years before the airport can be built to specifications.

In recent weeks there has been much excitement that India’s carriers have been flying out of the red and into the profit. This might sound like an ongoing success story. We have to be careful that we do not overreach at various levels. During the past two months, carriers that lost heavily during the COVID crisis have made a certain comeback and recouped some of their losses. The inflation in ticket prices, even for low-cost airlines, could be a damper and compel people to stay at home.

It is also not accurate to say that all Indian carriers are profitable. While some Indian airlines are indeed profitable, others are struggling to stay afloat. Most Indian airlines have reported losses due to reduced demand, travel restrictions, and increased operating costs. According to the Civil Aviation Ministry, the details of losses incurred by the industry are FY 2019-20 INR 4,770 crore, FY 2020-21 INR 12,479 crore, and FY 2021-22 INR 11,658 crore.

Moreover, it is essential to note that profitability can vary significantly between airlines and can be impacted by various factors, such as market competition, pricing strategies, operating costs, fuel prices, and government policies.

India’s aviation surge has brought numerous benefits to the country, and that cannot be denied. There is increased connectivity and job creation leading to economic solvency. While one might express reservations about telescoped training and the risk to safety from fatigue, by and large, the expansion has been commendable.

The story has just begun, and the strands have to bind together to create a strong rope. It is a fact that Indian airports have undergone significant upgrades, and they offer services and facilities that at one time were only available at metro airports. With the growth of passengers and flights and the major issue of baggage reconciliation, flying is an exhausting business.

It has to be said that the major carriers have put a lot of thought into the aircraft fleet mix and chosen carefully. While inter-regional connectivity is a priority, there may still be thought given to the sort of aircraft capacity needed on specific routes. History has shown us that the wrong aircraft on the wrong route can really bring an airline down to its knees; as such, even considering 40-seater turboprops makes sense.

The country has also invested in modernising its air traffic control systems to improve safety and efficiency.

One major and very positive impact comes from the Indian government’s boost to aviation. It has launched initiatives to develop new airports and upgrade existing ones, such as the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) and the Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik (UDAN) scheme. These travel options will increase regional connectivity and make air travel more accessible to people in remote and underserved areas.

Much has been done to upgrade what was a lagging vertical in maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO). The MRO sector had been given short shrift for a very long time. While things have improved and some of the detriments loosened, there’s still a long way to go to become globally competitive. At the new airports, there are still some infrastructure challenges that need to be addressed even as new aircraft are pressed into service.

There will be a need for more parking stands and maintenance facilities at airports, as well as improved ground handling capabilities so that turnaround times are not adversely affected.

As the aviation map becomes wider and more complex, India will need to develop a robust supply chain for spare parts, maintenance, and repairs to support its growing fleet of aircraft. This requires investment in training and development of technical skills and capabilities in the aviation sector. All too often, we forget the wood for the trees and suddenly find ourselves with aircraft grounded because of limited spare parts and a shortage of engineers.

As somebody who has always felt that safety is commensurate with air traffic control (ATC) and the support that it is given, it is heartening that India has become a modernisation process, but with crowded skies, the efficiency of the ATC system will once again come into question.

India’s ATC system has undergone significant upgrades and modernisation in recent years to keep pace with the country’s growing aviation industry. However, as the skies get more crowded, there are some challenges in ensuring the efficiency of the ATC system.

Investments have been made in modernising air traffic management systems. One such addition is the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) system, which allows for more accurate and efficient tracking of aircraft.

The Collaborative Decision Making (CDM) system is also operational. It enables real-time sharing of data and information between the various stakeholders in the aviation industry, including airlines, airport operators, and ATC. This improves safety parameters. All this said, there is a shortage of ATC operators, and burnout and fatigue are common. With more planes in the sky, the pressure mounts and efficiency can be compromised. ATC should be made a more attractive career option.

Last year India had an uplift of 60 million passengers. There is a target ahead in which traffic could cross 140 million passengers in the future.

Here’s to hoping.

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of IADB

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