Inside India’s cut-throat airplane revolution

(CNN) — Just as the railways shaped modern India, cheap air tickets, driven by fierce competition between carriers, are changing the way Indians travel around their country.

They’re also promising to take hundreds of millions more to the skies — most of whom have never flown before.

But, ironically, cut-throat competition also means the very same airlines that unleashed this revolution may be among the last to enjoy its fruits.

Case in point: The recent collapse of debt-ridden Jet Airways — one of India’s biggest airlines. Despite operating in one of the world’s fastest-growing aviation markets, on April 18 it announced it was indefinitely suspending all flights after it ran out of cash.

Mega orders fueled by unquenchable demand

Budget carriers now account for 70% of India's domestic aviation market.

Budget carriers now account for 70% of India’s domestic aviation market.

MANJUNATH KIRAN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

To better understand the current paradoxical state of India’s aviation industry, we need to go back a few years.

In 2014, a relatively young Indian low-cost airline, IndiGo, made headlines by ordering 250 Airbus A320 aircraft in one go, a purchase worth a whopping $26.5 billion at catalog prices.

Coming on the heels of an earlier order for 100 aircraft of the same type, it was at the time the single largest aircraft order ever received by the European aircraft manufacturer.

While these figures may have seemed eye-catching back then, demand has caught up after four years of double-digit growth in the Indian commercial aviation industry, and IndiGo is already changing up to bigger airplanes.

In late 2018, the carrier announced it was converting 125 aircraft from its A320 order to the A321neo type, a larger aircraft that’s able to accommodate 220 passengers, instead of the 189 of the A320.

These aircraft mega-orders aren’t one-offs, but reflect a wider trend.

In July 2016, budget carrier GoAir doubled the size of an earlier aircraft order of the new Airbus A320neo to 144. Spicejet has ordered 205 of Boeing’s 737 MAX model.

Indian airlines have close to 1,000 outstanding aircraft orders in their books. To put this figure in context, there are currently nearly 700 operational airliners in India.

Two decades of wonder

India's Spicejet airline is one of several low-cost carriers to place large aircraft orders in recent years.

India’s Spicejet airline is one of several low-cost carriers to place large aircraft orders in recent years.

Bloomberg/Bloomberg/Bloomberg via Getty Images

So what does all this mean for travelers?

Basically, cheap domestic flights and more routes — making it easier than ever to explore India, including destinations once considered too remote for a quick vacation.

Budget airlines now account for 70% of the domestic market and, according to the International Air Transport Organization (IATA), the average domestic fare in India now costs less than a third of what it did in 2005.

In the past 20 years, the Indian airline industry as a whole has multiplied the number of passengers it carries by eight.

Performance in the low-cost segment has been even more impressive: it has grown 27-fold since its beginnings (the first Indian low-cost carrier, the now gone Air Deccan, launched in 2003).

The end of the party is nowhere in sight.

“India has still the lowest air travel penetration rates among the top 20 air travel markets globally. It is low even compared to other emerging markets,” explains Binit Somaia, South Asia director of CAPA, an aviation consultancy.

“If you look at domestic capacity, the number of annual available seats per capita, it is also well below other large economies; if India’s is around 0.1, similar numbers for China and the US are 0.4 and 2.6 respectively. So there’s room for way more growth.”

Indeed, IATA expects the number of air journeys in India to more than treble over the next couple of decades, from the current 160 million to 520 million per year in 2037.

“The 8.1 billion train trips per year in India have the potential of getting converted into over 1 billion flying trips.”

Anand Stanley, Airbus India president and managing director

Even at their lowest end, IATA’s traffic estimates project that India will become the third largest air travel market in the world (after the United States and China) within a generation.

Looking at passenger throughput, this may already have happened.

Anand Stanley, president and managing director at Airbus India & South Asia, shares this optimism over the longer-term prospects of the Indian air travel market.

“The 8.1 billion train trips per year in India have the potential of getting converted into over 1 billion flying trips,” he says.

“This represents enormous growth opportunities for the industry. We would expect the number of aircraft required to be close to 2,000 over the next 20 years.”

Whether airlines are going to benefit as much as travelers and aircraft makers from this upcoming capacity increase is an entirely different matter, though.

Feeling the pinch

Vistara flight attendants pose aboard an Airbus A320neo during an event at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on September 1, 2018.

Vistara flight attendants pose aboard an Airbus A320neo during an event at the Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi on September 1, 2018.

CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/AFP/Getty Images

Among the major Indian airlines, only two, IndiGo and GoAir, have managed to remain consistently profitable in recent years. A third one, SpiceJet has had a more mixed performance, although it seems to be moving in a positive direction.

However, a few tough quarters in 2018 means that not even these budget carriers are sure to return a profit at the end of the current fiscal year.

Leaner low-cost carriers, though, seem to be coping better with a competitive environment that keeps ticket prices low, and makes it difficult to compensate for increases in costs such as fuel.

In contrast, full-service carriers are feeling the squeeze.

Government-owned Air India has long been a burden on public finances, with bureaucracy and high costs often blamed for its failings. Its finances are said to be so messy that a recent privatization attempt was called off because of a lack of prospective buyers.

Jet Airways, a privately owned full-service carrier and India’s second largest airline, had regularly posted losses over the last decade, leading to its collapse this month. A tie-up with Etihad Airways of Abu Dhabi, which bought 24% of its capital, wasn’t enough to pull it out of the red.

It meets the same fate as Kingfisher Airlines, once a revered brand and India’s second largest domestic airline. Owned by flamboyant beer magnate Vijay Mallya it collapsed in 2012, together with the rest of its owner’s business empire.

The sheer size of India’s aviation market, though, keeps attracting new entrants.

Both Air Asia and Singapore Airlines have established separate joint ventures with Indian industrial conglomerate Tata Sons. The result has been the launch of two new airlines: AirAsia India, which follows the low-cost model of the other carriers in the AirAsia group and Vistara, a full-service carrier with a more upmarket positioning.

Domestic market remains the focus

These newly established airlines have until now been limited to the domestic market. This is about to change as airlines reach the minimum fleet size threshold set by the Indian government to grant access to international routes.

But also of relevance is that the domestic market is larger and growing faster, so far.

With much to be done to provide air connectivity to India’s smaller cities and towns, the government is tweaking regulations and offering flight subsidies to try to stimulate the market.

Airlines have so far responded by adding small turboprop aircraft to their fleets.

But can India’s infrastructure cope with all this growth?

Indian authorities have been busy building new airports to catch up: 34 of them have been inaugurated over the last 18 months as part of an ambitious plan that aims to build 100 new airports over a period of 15 years, 70 of these in greenfield locations.

Nevertheless, it’s the international market that might be heading for a shakeup.

This is an area where the country’s airlines will face stiff competition from the mighty Gulf carriers that have in India a key link in their global networks.

But according to CAPA’s Somaia, Indian low-cost carriers have a great opportunity ahead of them in international markets.

“There is a convergence of several factors: on one hand there is an unmet demand, with expanding middle classes aspiring to travel to new places, including many leisure oriented destinations,” he says.

“On the other hand some major foreign carriers are constrained by bilateral right treaties and the two large full-service carriers, Air India and Jet Airways are focused on sorting their own internal issues. Add to this the arrival of new aircraft and the potential to grow this market is significant.”

New opportunities for international travel

With longer range single aisle aircraft such as the A321neo becoming available, India’s ultra-competitive low-cost airlines are already eyeing new opportunities on the international front.

IndiGo is preparing to launch routes into Europe, China and other destinations in Southeast Asia, while SpiceJet has set its sights on former Soviet republics as well as Singapore, Malaysia and China. GoAair flew its first international service, to Thailand, last October.

Meanwhile, Vistara and AirAsia India may follow suit as soon as they meet the 20 aircraft fleet threshold required by Indian regulators before launching international flights.

Even if some of these destinations would need an intermediate stop — for example Central Asia cities Tbilisi and Baku have been touted as stepping stones for IndiGo’s planned service to London — Indian low-cost airlines expect to capture part of the market by offering fares up to 30% lower than current prices.

If the past is any guide — and carriers are able to replicate their formula overseas — travel to and from India may be about to get way cheaper.

Good news for travelers, not so much for incumbent airlines.

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