Stumped by the directives Indian operators, budget airlines IndiGo and GoAir were forced to ground a part of the fleet, reassess their expansion on this aircraft type, pay more for maintenance and still grappling with an unresolved problem.
Whether it was men, machines or the business itself – it was a year of turbulence and disruption for airlines in the country. Bad news landed at the start of the year as US aviation watchdog Federal Aviation Authority and European Aviation Safety Agency issued emergency airworthiness directive for operators flying the Airbus A320neo single aisle aircraft powered by the Pratt & Whitney engine PW1100G warning of a in-flight shutdown and rejected take off on aircraft fitted with this engine type.
Stumped by the directives Indian operators, budget airlines IndiGo and GoAir were forced to ground a part of the fleet, reassess their expansion on this aircraft type, pay more for maintenance and still grappling with an unresolved problem. The machine scare continued into the later part of the year, this time with US aircraft manufacturer Boeing’s latest and upgraded 737 aircraft type-MAX, impacting full service carrier Jet Airways and SpiceJet both large customers of this aircraft type. Boeing issued a safety warning about the ‘angle of attack’ sensor post a fatal crash involving Indonesian carrier Lion Air killing all 189 passengers on board followed by directives issued by the Indian aviation watchdog to take corrective measures for a possible altitude loss manifestation.
Bleeding and distressed- words that best describe business performance of Indian carriers. Market leader IndiGo announced its first ever quarter loss after it listed on the stock exchanges in the year 2015 of Rs 652.1 crore, while Jet Airways reported losses of Rs 2,620.46 till the first half of FY18/19 to add to its accumulated losses of Rs10,772 crore. SpiceJet wasn’t able to buck the trend either. The Tata Group promoted airlines – budget carrier AirAsia India (AAI) and full service airline Vistara together put up a bad show with Rs 2,000 crore of accumulated losses and 2018 bled them further.
Ironically, the Naresh Goyal promoted airline Jet Airways that completed 25 years of operations made headlines not for this reason but because it faces an uncertain future that hinges on its ability to rope in a strategic or a financial investor that can bail the struggling carrier out with large amount of equity infusion needed but it will enter 2019 with uncertainty.
Jet’s financial woes triggered the possibility of consolidation in the Indian aviation space with the airline in discussion to cut a deal with the Tatas for a possible share swap agreement. The promoters of GoAir, the Wadia Group tested the market as well scouting for an investor to offload a partial stake in the airline.
Oil and depreciating rupee, the two demons Indian carriers continued fighting against in 2018 with a report projecting their combined loses at Rs 9,300 crore surpassing the industry loses, worse in a decade for the industry, of Rs 7,348 crore, a blow it was dealt with in 2014 contrasting it with a profit of three good years of Rs 4,000 crore. Oil expected to be higher by 28% compared to FY2018 to impact significantly viewed in conjunction with a depreciating rupee that skidded 13% against the dollar since March 2018. This meant higher operating costs, expanding losses that were not met with commensurate hike in fares. Airlines largely remained inapt in commanding the fares to meet these costs. Though capacity addition continued averaging about 25%. Easing of fuel prices over the past month will definitely add a bit of cheer to an otherwise gloomy scenario.
It was also a year that saw the corner offices caught in crossfire between promoters and boards leading to some of the most talked about exits of the aviation industry in the recent past and also a swathe of executive churn in the sector.
Top of the chart was the high profile exit of IndiGo’s President for nearly a decade Aditya Ghosh calling it quits triggering speculation that it was due to a fall out between the promoters and Ghosh due to the hiring of a number of expats by the budget airline as it gets into the next phase of its international expansion with newer and bigger aircraft type that is the A321neo and the A321LRs.
AirAsia India’s CEO Amar Abrol’s resignation that preceded Ghosh’s was a classic case of different aviation work cultures of the Indian promoters and the foreign partner pointing to the stress the FDI model can be subjected to in the times to come. The control tussle between the Tatas and the Malaysian partner Tony Fernades docked the airline’s expansion paving way for the Tatas to run the carrier with their man at the helm. The saga of rapid exits from the Wadia Group promoted GoAir, meanwhile, continued unabated.
One of the most talked about controversies of lobbying and bribing government officials by an Indian aviation company to ease regulations to allow them a faster entry route to international skies and its repercussions followed by CBI investigations against top executives, a first in Indian aviation, all made for a perfect potboiler.
Market conditions also dictated a phase of re-engineering for airline companies in India with tweaked models as done by Vistara and Jet to bring in more flexi fares and giving passengers a choice to avail services that they want and are willing to pay for. SpiceJet strengthened the ancillary revenues and expanded into cargo business while GoAir mulls targeting holiday destination markets that are hot spots for weekend getaways.
Amongst all this was also news that India is the fastest growing aviation market globally with an envious double-digit growth. There were big fat announcements like government spending close to $60 billion towards airport privitisation in the country to build100 new airports over the next 10-15 years contrasted by protests towards privatisation of brownfield airports by the employees of the Airports Authority of India.
Observers of Indian aviation believe that by far and away the most disastrous element of Indian aviation this year has to be the failure by the Government to spin off Air India. As Saj Ahmad, Chief Analyst at Strategic Aero Research, a UK based aerospace and airlines analysis and research intelligence outfit says, “Not a single entity ponied up any interest is a massive hammer blow for the Government and a damning indictment of the state of the airline. No one wants to touch it – not even when using/borrowing someone else’s money.”
Scathing in his attack, Ahmad says there have been many positives in Indian aviation – but none really warrant the moniker of “headline of the year”. He says beyond the inane headlines that it’s the biggest potential market in the world (it isn’t), performance has been lethargic, still less than 10% of the population use air travel and every airline in the country is struggling to make money. “That’s a rather grim landscape given the pseudo-positivity thrown at the country with respect to its future prospects.”
“Vistara’s move into the long haul arena with its order for Boeing 787-9s will provide customers with a real alternative to the disaster that is Air India and without the fear of a sustainable business question mark like Jet Airways,” he adds.
So what does 2019 hold for airlines? Mark Martin, Founder and CEO at Martin Consulting presents a rather grim picture when he says that 2019 begins with the withdrawal of service of seven operators under UDAN (government’s subsidized regional connectivity scheme to help common man fly), unstable Jet Airways, a rushed disinvestment of six brownfield airports, five per cent import duty on jet fuel, airline with strained financials, a delayed Navi Mumbai Airport launch date and an overall congested Mumbai airport that’s breaching nearly all safety thresholds in terms of operational safety. No other industry in India at the moment is a distressed as aviation is and the non nonchalant attitude of the government must change.”
Good news? We are still the fastest growing aviation market in the world.