I’m writing this column sitting at Mumbai Airport’s Terminal 2. This airport is reflective of India’s fast-paced growth in aviation, recognised as one of the best airport terminals for passenger experience, but today a shadow of its former self. Just a couple of days ago, the traffic data for April 2019 were released, and it showed that domestic traffic declined 2 percent year-on-year for the first time since June 2013, when Kingfisher Airlines went away. Now, it was Jet Airways. Also, one of every two passengers in India, now flies IndiGo.
So before the Modi government kicks off its second term, it would be a good idea to reflect on the breakneck growth of the past five years before starting with the policymaking for the next term. Here are some thoughts on what should definitely be on their list of things to do.
1. Offer Indian passengers a quality international travel experience: The grounding of Jet Airways has taken away a large amount of quality air traffic capacity out of India. From amongst the Indian carriers, Jet Airways was the only one which could hold its own. Air India, which was given the Star Alliance membership on a platter, failed to capitalise on the potential, and has hardly been able to link up with other members to gain formidable codeshare alliances to source traffic. The no-frill carriers only have planes good enough to fly regionally.
In light of these, it is very important to choose which airlines get the bilateral rights of Jet Airways. Essentially, there needs to be a transparent policy for equitable slot allocation of these bilateral capacities, rather than arbitrary rules such as how much capacity was added in the past five years. Those policies will only ensure the big get bigger and the smaller get left behind. And while the government might still be hurting from the fact that Emirates has a disproportionate share of Indian traffic, given that domestic airlines won’t be able to fly us further than the Middle East and South East Asia anytime soon, it would become essential for them to rights to international airlines to make sure Indian passengers get a quality travel experience at a reasonable cost.
2. Focus on sustainable growth domestically: India is expected to be the third largest aviation market globally in the next decade or so. However, more planes mean more resources need to be put at the disposal of airlines as well. This would mean a large scale requirement of pilots, engineers and other resources. The focus should not just be on adding more planes and hence more flights. The focus should be on quality this time around, for everyone in the ecosystem. To start with, in the interest of safety, the government should convene a comprehensive review of the duty timelines to ensure pilots and crew are not fatigued.
The government’s war cry for aviation last time was Hawai Chappal to Hawai Jahaaz. But the actions were not in line with the statements fully. The government would like fares to be kept low for more people to fly. And the competitiveness amongst airlines has made sure this be the case for the past few years. However, when it comes to the part of the government keeping its share of the aviation ecosystem’s contributions, it continues to keep aviation fuel highly taxed, indicating that it thinks of aviation as a luxury rather than a necessity. Owing to high airfares, people switch back to trains, and if we have to move from a developing to a developed economy, our population deserves the tools of air commute to be able to best use their time at work rather than commuting on trains. After all, time is money.
Sustainable growth also means relooking at the empty airstrips around the country. They don’t need fancy airport terminals. They just need functional ones. A model that works well for many tier two airports globally, as well as in India. On the other hand, major gateway airports in India, such as Mumbai, Delhi need better infrastructure which should come online quicker rather than later.
3. Sell Air India, the white elephant: While Air India serves a unique purpose of being the nation’s carrier and chips in every time there is an emergency, that is no reason to keep it on the balance sheet of the nation. Air India needs to be privatised, and a lot of hard calls would need to be taken before it would be restored to its former glory. To do this means the Government needs to sell the airline at viable terms for the interested bidders, not at viable terms for themselves. That might mean they want to keep some equity for themselves, but that definitely means they will need to give up complete control of the airline to whosoever takes over the airline.
4. Focus on resolving the airspace closure with Pakistan: It is no secret that aviation is hurting in the country because of the airspace closure over Pakistan. Flights to Delhi are the most affected, and a lot of international carriers, and even Air India, are having to cancel flights to Delhi due to the long circuitous route to circumvent Pakistan which makes it unviable to fly these routes. Owing to this, capacity is constrained and airfares are soaring.
5. Bring a full-fledged aviation authority: The current regulator, the DGCA, was always supposed to be a safety regulator for Indian aviation. Infact, its vision on the DGCA website is stated to be, “Endeavour to promote safe and efficient Air Transportation through regulation and proactive safety oversight system.” A full-fledged aviation authority with oversight on all functions, modelled on the lines of the Federal Aviation Authority of the USA, was supposed to be brought up, called the CAA. This has not happened over the years, and is a major sticking point with the international oversight body for aviation. Time the government recruited top-shelf aviation talent and bring the CAA to life.
Needless to say, a lot needs to be done to make sure more Indians can fly, and fly to more places at the same time. But, doing this would be a good start to getting there.
Ajay Awtaney is a business travel & aviation journalist based in Mumbai, and the founder of the Indian frequent-traveller website Live From A Lounge (www.livefromalounge.com.) Ajay flies over 200,000 miles every year, and tweets about The Business of Travel at @LiveFromALounge.