Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Face The Fact: Expansion Is An Uphill Exercise

By Bikram Vohra

Potentially, Indian aviation is sitting pretty. All the kerfuffle about spearheading the global comeback has tremendous credibility and could happen. 94% of 1.6 billion people have never taken a flight anywhere. With that level of numbers waiting in the wings, it is tempting to make sun-kissed projections about steeply rising graphs.

There is just one tendril of fear, which directly relates to the significant part. Can one entirely rely on the DNA of the passenger per se to make the shift from land to air in a nation that is still hugely price sensitive?

Besides the standard issues of slots, maintenance, economic considerations, oil prices, the pandemic, geopolitical uncertainties and conflicts and sharp-edged competition from foreign carriers and profitable routes that have not yet been evaluated, the increase in the number of aircraft still has the risk of belying the promise of a wonderful revolution.

Currently, over 65% of Indian travellers go abroad on non-Indian carriers. So how does one create a bridge without dependence on patriotic fervour? Those days of supporting a carrier as a national symbol are gone. Passengers today want comfort, convenience, reward, and fiscal advantage. If they do not get it, they will opt-out. Let us go back to pricing for a moment.

In the summer of 2023, there were days when low-cost carriers like IndiGo were more expensive on milk and honey Gulf routes than full-service carriers, Emirates included.

That effort to add a little heft to wafer-thin margins by gouging tactics has a limit. The more aircraft capacity a carrier has, the greater the risk of reduced profits, especially if airport expansion is not commensurate with purchase. Internationally, slot wars directly impact route maps. Where do you land your planes? And if low cost becomes just a label, at some point, passengers will figure it out, much to the detriment of that carrier.

Recently India blocked the extension of flying rights to Middle East carriers. The intent is to get passengers from that 65% potential pool to fly twin aisles to Europe and the United States of America (USA), but it is yet to pan out. Gulf carriers could today double their load factor into Indian airports and are smarting at what they see as protectionism. The attraction to shift to Indian carriers is still relatively slow because folks have no specific incentive to change.

Congestion, now a seasonal given at airports, puts aside grandiose plans to expand, and the investment in new aircraft could create a herd of white elephants. The spike we see these days gives the impression of a massive uptick in passengers. Yes, there has been a return to pre-Covid numbers, but the congestion is also caused by a limitation on the airport network and facilities.

Domestically, these visuals of jammed airports might give the illusion of great surges in mobility, but again, it can be misleading when measured against what could be and what would be catastrophic if the infrastructure falls behind even further from the expansion.

All too often, the system cannot cope, and the congestion is a direct result of delayed flights, another aeronautical hazard. Staffing shortages after the pandemic-induced layoffs have still not been upped, and the irony is that with oil prices rising courtesy of the Russian-Ukraine war, hiring is running on the slow track.

The weakest elements in recreating a more intricate route map with far more city pairings than we have today are the core of the Udan initiative and worthy in its intent. But it is not that easy to reach the objective. For one, flying is no longer fun. On the contrary, it has become joyless and frustrating. The protocols are exhausting and now often demeaning.

While we prattle on about statistics and stress-bloated bottom lines, we ignore the reality that the sense of helplessness and surrender that the air passengers feel is a very major deterrent to making a reservation for another flying massacre time. A 120-minute flight can involve six hours of futile waiting and doing nothing. An article in Business Insider says: Lost baggage, overbooked flights, outdated equipment, hidden fees, and disorganised staffing have fliers at their wits’ end; consumer complaints about airline service have risen by 300% from pre-pandemic levels.

You would think that the way excitement in this post-Covid comeback is indicative of greater love for this travel option; the fact is people are increasingly flying out of necessity. This July, a US survey indicated the widening gap between passengers and airlines. “Long lines due to security procedures at check-in, cramped seating, inconvenient schedules, poor service – the list of airline travellers’ complaints is a lengthy one. The perception that air travel is an ordeal makes it exceedingly difficult for airlines to charge the higher prices that are necessary to return to profitability. Social media has propelled a number of what can only be described as PR disasters recently and undoubtedly caused harm to the industry.”

Bad behaviour, air rage, aggression and rudeness have now become hallmarks of the industry.

In India, there is truly little study done on passenger profiles and what would be the fallout if convenience became the overriding factor in decision-making. Take the obvious but often ignored conditions. Most airports are out of the city and involve an extra and often cruel expense. The transit between the city and the airport can often take longer than the flight itself. By contrast, you can take a train or bus ten minutes before departure, and their stations are central.

Then there are no security lines and body checks for this option. These factors become increasingly valid in short-haul city pairs.

Another element that impacts the experience is baggage reconciliation. Of the 26 million mishandled bags in 2022, 80% were delayed, an increase of 9% from the previous year. Damaged bags accounted for 13% of mishandled bags, while 7% were lost or stolen. Airport ground handling is lagging, seeing as the system is now 30 years old. Globally, mishandled baggage rate soared to 7.6 bags per 1,000 passengers in 2022, up from 4.35 in 2021 and 5.6 in 2019.

Two other issues will create new pressures: Keeping up with advancements in aviation technology and customer service innovation is crucial for staying competitive and is costly. The arrival of the artificial intelligence (AI) era means more investment because airports that fall behind will be marginalised. By that measure, data breaches and cyberattacks can compromise passenger information and disrupt airline operations, and airlines are vulnerable to such invasions. Weather, failure of servers, the equivalent of gridlock and waiting time in the take-off and landing lines add to the problem.

Congestion and subsequent delay will not go away soon. As more planes are added, it will only get worse…and more expensive to fly. Overworked staff, currently impatient and not so helpful globally, only add to the misery.

For Udan to really take off, some rethinking is necessary. Lack of instrument landing systems (ILS) leads to flight cancellations, and repeated cancellations make it difficult to build traffic on the route on a sustained basis. Rough terrain and approach in mountain regions make it tough to maintain schedules and generate passenger loyalty. The network map must project routes that are profitable throughout the year, creating a sustainable connection along with a more dynamic hub and spoke design.

Finally, timing. For domestic routes, this is a crucial point. No one wants to get up at 0400 hours to take a 45-minute flight. But if that is the only option to connect to a metro with limited slots, it is unattractive and will further put the brakes on progress. 

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of IADB

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