How India's airlines are preparing for a 'robust' surge in travel

The country's aviation industry is in a strong growth phase but faces headwinds including high fuel costs, analysts say

Passengers wait to board a plane at Mumbai airport. Air India is expected to order up to 300 new planes to overhaul its fleet as the industry continues its recovery. AFP
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Airlines in India are accelerating their fleet expansion plans as they prepare for a surge in growth amid the sector's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.

“The Indian aviation industry is in a robust growth phase,” says Neha Singh, an associate partner specialising in aviation at Link Legal. “A growing strong middle class … [is] key to sectoral growth. Fleet expansion is inevitable.”

Air India, which was taken over by Tata Group in January after the government privatised the debt-laden carrier, is considering ordering up to 300 new planes to overhaul its fleet, according to Bloomberg.

India's Jet Airways is planning to return to the skies this year and is considering a deal to buy new jets, while budget carrier Akasa Air will launch its first flights next month after signing an agreement in November last year to purchase 72 Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

Before the pandemic, India was the world's fastest-growing aviation market but it now faces high fuel costs and a turbulent geopolitical environment after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

“Possibly this is the correct time for increasing capacity,” Ms Singh says.

“We are looking at rapid growth and the sector has to start preparing despite the odds of high fuel prices or pandemic, war or any other form of disruption.”

As the global recovery in travel continues to recover on the back of easing Covid restrictions, Asia-Pacific airlines experienced a 453.3 per cent rise in May traffic compared with the same period in 2021, according to the latest passenger data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

This was up from an increase of 295.3 per cent year-on-year in April 2022. Capacity for airlines in the region rose 118.8 per cent and the load factor was up 43.6 percentage points to 72.1 per cent.

“The travel recovery continues to gather momentum,” Willie Walsh, Iata’s director general, said this month. “People need to travel. And when governments remove Covid-19 restrictions, they do.”

Indian carriers placing orders this year will prove crucial to the sector's flight path and airline performance in the coming years, analysts say.

“Order decisions that are likely to be made this year will have a major influence on India’s commercial aircraft fleet in the long term,” the Capa Centre for Aviation said in a research note this month.

“The fact that airlines — including those in India — are considering aircraft orders again is a sign that the industry is confident that the post-Covid-19 recovery is well under way. With fleet decisions having been delayed for the past few years, ordering replacements has become even more of a priority now.”

Air India and Jet Airways “are expected to place orders for hundreds of aircraft as they look to the next phases of their fleet development”, Capa said.

It had been anticipated that major deals by the two carriers would be announced at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK last week.

While no announcements were made, new planes will be essential considering Tata's focus on turning around Air India after years of losses under the government's ownership, Capa said.

“This will be a priority for the airline’s new owner Tata Group, as Air India currently has no aircraft on order to replace ageing fleet types,” it said.

“The airline had avoided placing orders even before the Covid-19 pandemic due to uncertainty over its ownership and its mountainous debt. With new investors, the time is right to address fleet needs.

“This demonstrates the faith airlines have in the potential for continued rapid growth in the Indian travel market.”

Orders would include narrow-body and wide-body planes, while refreshing the fleet would put Air India in a stronger position to tap into the growing market.

“India remains an underpenetrated market given the growing middle-class population and limited airport network,” says Richa Agarwal, senior research analyst at Equitymaster.

“The long-term opportunity for industry growth is huge” but the opportunity is propelling renewed competition in the sector, Ms Agarwal says.

Jet Airways stopped flying in April 2019, when it ran out of cash.

However, it is working on resuming operations after a revival plan was approved by India’s bankruptcy court last year, under the consortium of London-based Kalrock Capital and UAE-based businessman Murari Lal Jalan.

Described as an “ultra low-cost carrier”, Akasa Air is preparing to launch operations in a couple of weeks, with flights between Mumbai and Ahmedabad in the western state of Gujarat.

While the airlines business has witnessed a sharp revival, from complete grounding post pandemic to all major routes opening up, the economics of the sector is still swayed by the single factor high fuel prices
Richa Agarwal, senior research analyst at Equitymaster

The carrier is being run by former Jet Airways chief executive Vinay Dube and is backed by billionaire Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.

“The airline expects to have two [planes] flying by the time it begins service and plans to add more aircraft every month, drawing from the 72 Maxes it ordered in November 2021,” the Capa Centre for Aviation's report said.

“Akasa intends to have a fleet of 18 [aircraft] by the end of March 2023, adding another 12 to 14 every 12 months after that. This would mean that all of its orders would be delivered over five years.”

There are still major challenges on the horizon, however, which could affect the profitability of airlines.

“While the airline business has witnessed a sharp revival, from complete grounding post-pandemic to all major routes opening up, the economics of the sector is still swayed by the single factor [of] high fuel prices,” Ms Agarwal says.

With more players entering the market and airport networks and fleet expansions taking place, this could result in fierce price wars, which would eat into profits, she adds.

“Despite an improvement in the distances travelled and load factors, the airline economics looks doomed,” she says.

“High fuel prices and rupee depreciation have wiped off any gains from sector revival. Even for budget airlines that have survived the crisis, high interest costs continue to eat into improvement in profits that they have witnessed in recovering quarters.”

A major hurdle that will accompany fleet expansion in India is the need to ensure there are sufficient numbers of qualified pilots and crew.

This issue is compounded considering the mass staffing shortages and strikes that are causing disruption air travel in Europe.

In India, the sector's expansion “will come with staffing challenges and possibly increase in the employee costs, be it the cabin crew or pilots”, Ms Agarwal says.

Air India is looking at rehiring retired pilots to meet its staffing needs as it prepares for what would be one of the largest aircraft orders in commercial aviation history, Bloomberg reported, citing an official at the airline.

It is not only major carriers in India that are looking to expand. Smaller domestic airlines are also increasing their fleets to tap the market of people travelling within the country, which is only expected to rise over the coming years as the economy grows and incomes rise.

Regional carrier Star Air, the aviation vertical of Indian conglomerate Sanjay Ghodawat Group, this month signed a letter of intent to lease two Embraer E175 aircraft, and it wants to add more aircraft in the coming years.

Over the past three years, the company has expanded its network to 18 destinations with five planes.

Shrenik Ghodawat, director at Star Air, says it is a tough operating environment.

“The aviation industry is going through tough times due to the increase in fuel prices. Airlines in India are among the highest taxed in the world.”

But as travel demand in India is picking up, the company sees an enormous opportunity to “improve the regional connectivity in India”.

“By offering the right capacity at affordable fares, we pledge to support the growing demand across the country,” Mr Ghodawat says.

Updated: July 25, 2022, 4:30 AM