Tuesday, August 18, 2009

India's Airline Industry Goes From Boom to Bust...

A few years ago, India's airline industry was flying high. A booming economy made India one of the fastest growing and most competitive aviation markets in the world. Six new carriers launched while established airlines laid on new routes and bought new jets. In the last four years, Indian carriers ordered 400 Boeing and Airbus jetliners worth about $37 billion.

Brace for impact. The global recession has hit air carriers everywhere, but a sharp decline in passenger numbers is especially bad news for India. With oil prices rising to $73 a barrel, Indian airlines — which carry just 2% of the world's passengers — could sustain more than $2.5 billion in losses this year, accounting for one-fourth of the projected $9 billion in losses for the entire industry, according to the International Air Transport Association. Weighed down by overcapacity, debt and the government's refusal to provide bailouts, Indian carriers are being forced to slash their operations and reduce ticket prices. "Indian aviation is undergoing a regime change in just four years," says chief executive officer of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation.

That change includes deferring aircraft deliveries, cancelling orders, rationalizing routes and trimming staff to stave off financial collapse. "It's going to be tough, but we mean business," says Praful Patel, India's civil aviation minister. At the same time, three of the country's largest carriers — state-owned Air India, and private players Jet Airways and Kingfisher — are trying to attract more passengers by turning their full-service domestic fleets into budget businesses. In January, India's budget airlines fleet totaled 75 jets, compared with 120 full-service planes. The Center for Asia Pacific Aviation's Kaul reckons that by the end of the year, the skies will be dominated by up to 160 low-fare jets as companies switch to budget operations.

Hardest hit by the economic downturn has been national carrier Air India: It reported annual losses of $1 billion in the fiscal year ending March 31, along with an accumulated debt of $3.5 billion; that debt load is expected to rise to $7 billion by 2012 if it takes delivery of 111 new aircraft already on order. Air India alone accounts for 10% of the total projected losses for the global airline industry this year — even though it carries just 0.35% of global traffic. Air India is suffering from an aging fleet and a bloated staff roster of 31,000 permanent employees and 20,000 contract staff; its labor costs amount to 18% of its total operating expense, the highest ratio in the world, according to Patel.

With no bailout help from New Delhi in sight, Air India is bidding to bring its profitable international budget brand — Air India Express — to Indian turf. Air India Express, which has been flying routes to the Middle East and Southeast Asia for the past five years, will configure 10 of its 57 planes for budget flights by September, says Air India managing director Arvind Jadhav. The company plans to increase the number of budget flights a day from 25 initially to 43 by October. Ticket fares will be down 25% making it attractive for fliers. The logic, says aviation minister Patel, "is to fill up seats and operate at lower costs." Unlike its parent, the profitable Air India Express operates as an independent company with lower overheads. Besides, with no business seats they will be able to pack in more people at a time when the passenger count for all airlines is down 30% since last year.

Following similar logic, private players Jet Airways and Kingfisher, owned by the liquor baron Vijay Mallya, are expanding existing budget operations to try to increase business during the economic downturn. They aren't starting from scratch. Both airlines already had rechristened budget carriers — Jet Lite and Kingfisher Red — acquired in 2007. Now they are transferring capacity to the economy fleets. Kingfisher Red jets are flying more routes; as a result, about 75% of all domestic passengers that now fly with Kingfisher are traveling budget class, up from 50% a year ago. Meanwhile, Jet Airways, India's oldest private player, has converted some of its jets by removing all business-class seats and rebranding them as JetKonnect — giving the company two budget brands. "It gives us the flexibility and speed to deploy capacity and reverse it to meet changing trends," said Sudheer Raghavan, chief commercial officer of Jet. Launched in May, JetKonnect offers 40% lower fares and plans to take the current 130 flights a week to 160 by October.

Officials for both carriers say they hope to resume normal operations once the economy rebounds. But analysts say that may be difficult because the industry has yet to solve a basic problem: too many airlines flying too many flights in a country that, despite its economic growth, is relatively poor. India's airlines are now crowding into the budget market, just as they crowded into regular and premium air travel services a few years ago. "With everybody fighting for the same piece of business, this could once again create overcapacity and fuel fare wars," says Ankur Bhatia, executive director of Bird Group, a New Delhi company that provides technology to the travel industry. Lowering fares may attract more travelers but it may not improve the overall financial health of the industry. "To make profits while shifting business models, the airlines have to think, act, breathe and be low cost," Amitabh Malhotra, managing director of investment bank NM Rothschild & Sons in Mumbai. "That doesn't happen overnight." Adds Patel, India's aviation minister: "This time every airline will learn a lesson the hard way."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

India as Global Aviation hub...

India’s aviation industry is in a mess.

Pick up any of India’s main papers and stories abound about India’s airlines losing $2 billion in the last financial year. NACIL, the publicly-owned company that runs Air India is in particularly bad shape. The government has rejected a request for a $3 billion bailout package. Instead, the government wants to overhaul AI’s management within a month and has started the hunt for an experienced chief operating officer. With accumulated losses as of March 31 that total a staggering $1.5 billion, for the first time in its history the airline delayed paying its salaries in June. None of the other large carriers, including Jet Airways and Kingfisher, are faring much better. Those two have taken excess capacity out of the market and reduced overheads. Airport operators, oil companies, hotels and others have either threatened to introduce or already are operating cash-and-carry regimes with carriers that have, in some cases, significantly exceeded their credit limits. The spectacular growth rates of 30% to 40% that enticed airlines to ramp up aircraft orders and to devise unsustainable (but until not too long ago universally followed) strategies of buying market share by discounting tickets and adding capacity are now history.

In such a scenario, is there any chance that India will emerge as a global aviation hub?

Looking at its metropolises, including the megacities of Delhi and Mumbai, India should already sport at least one major global aviation hub. Both cities have populations approaching 20 million inhabitants. Delhi is the country’s political capital and arguably its second most important commercial hub. It also does not suffer from the severe space constraints afflicting Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport. In fact, the masterplan for Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport envisages a capacity of 100 million passengers at the end of its development. The capital hosts embassies of most of the world’s countries, international schools, good hotels and entertainment facilities, a rapidly growing infrastructure and, if one includes the satellite towns of Gurgaon and Noida, more head offices of multinational companies than any other city in India. Until today, infrastructure has been a major handicap. Lack of efficient connectivity between the domestic and international terminals made transfers from domestic to international flights (and vice versa) an unpredictable nightmare for passengers and airlines. With the airport’s development and the construction of an integrated domestic/international terminal this problem will be resolved by the middle of next year.

“Capacity reduction is still lagging behind demand.”

However, their poor shape and the relatively small size of India’s airlines compared with majors such as Emirates, Lufthansa or Singapore Airlines — all with their already well-established hubs and route networks — will make it difficult for any desi carrier to assert itself. The merger of Air India and Indian Airlines was conceptually the right way forward. It was aimed at giving the state carrier the size and route network to effectively compete with its domestic and international challengers. Unfortunately, the marriage between the two airlines was never properly consummated and hardly any of its envisaged synergies have materialized.

So what should India’s aviation industry do to extricate itself from this mess?

To begin with, the airlines will have to start addressing the problems that they themselves have caused. This process has already started with Jet and Kingfisher deferring orders for new aircraft, mothballing new deliveries or, where possible, leasing or selling them to foreign carriers. In short, with the exception of some of the low cost operators, a significant amount of capacity has been taken out of the market. Jet has transferred much of its remaining capacity to its economy-only Jet Konnect product as well as to its low cost subsidiary JetLite. Kingfisher has followed the same strategy by shifting passengers onto its no frills Kingfisher Red product. On another front, a truce in the price wars has yet to be reached. Yet capacity reduction is still lagging behind demand. With all airlines chasing bums on seats, charging prices that will cover costs and hopefully leave a margin for profit remains difficult in such a hotly-contested market. We will surely see more consolidation or bankruptcies in the medium term. This is precisely an area where the government should step in. Before the elections, the Ministry of Civil Aviation contemplated allowing up to 49% foreign domestic investment in domestic airlines. This would include foreign airlines as potential investors – something that is currently explicitly prohibited. It seems obvious that in an industry where average profit margins do not exceed 1.5%, the most likely investors would be other airlines seeking to strengthen their market position, increase their route network or realize economies of scale. Since the elections, however, nothing more has been heard of this proposal.

Another deterrent: The cost of fuel, which in India is among the highest in the world. At current prices, fuel accounts for 45% to 50% of operating costs in India. While the central government has instructed the public-sector oil companies to provide generous credit terms to the airlines, it could do more by naming fuel a declared good which attracts a uniform 4% sales tax.

At present, it is up to individual states to charge fuel taxes as they see fit. Some of them are charging well over 30% – a figure that keeps on rising in absolute terms as fuel prices go up. Internationally, aviation fuel does not attract any levies in many major markets. For India, this means a distorted market, putting its carriers at a relative disadvantage especially on international routes and making technical or fuelling stops in India for international carriers non-viable.

Furthermore, service tax and other levies have been a bone of contention between the airline industry and the government. A review and streamlining of the entire tax regime would surely be a sensible thing. Getting the fundamentals right is obviously a prerequisite for the establishment of a successful hub. To date, India has been fairly liberal in its approach to so-called bilateral agreements which regulate how many flights and/or to which points carriers from two contracting countries can serve. This is a good thing. An open bilateral regime stimulates competition and traffic growth as the examples of Singapore and Dubai have shown. It is also instrumental in bringing down the cost of travel and promoting economic growth.

For the sake of its national economy, the current plight of the national carrier should not discourage India from keeping its aviation market open. Instead, liberalization should be used as a tool to make its industry more competitive and its national carrier a leaner, more focussed and especially a more customer-centric organization.

Air India has taken a couple of encouraging steps. It has selected a European hub at Frankfurt, its first outside India. It is phasing out its unreliable fleet of old B777s and B747s. It has been selected as a member of the Star Alliance and is in the process of joining. That will give Air India a greater reach into the coveted U.S. market in addition to its flights from India. It is through its alliance membership that Air India could widen its appeal and route network from India to the rest of the world.

Overall, India either has or is building the necessary ingredients for establishing a successful aviation hub, most likely in Delhi. But to fulfil that promise will require a broader partnership involving alliance partners, regulators, airport operators and local authorities to overcome the many hurdles that remain.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

BJETS delays aircraft deliveries as economic crisis bites

Asian fractional ownership firm BJETS has asked manufacturers to slow the delivery of the business aircraft it has on order due to the ongoing economic crisis.

The company, which is backed by USA-based investment firm Briley Group and Indian Hotels, operator of the Taj brand of luxury hotels in India and part of the Tata Group conglomerate, ordered 20 Cessna Citation CJ2+s, nine Hawker 850XPs, 11Hawker 900XPs, and 10Hawker 4000s last year. It had planned to take delivery of all the aircraft within five years.

However, it had only five aircraft in its fleet at the end of 2008, down from the seven it envisaged, says chief executive Mark Baier. BJETS will have 11-12 aircraft by the end of 2009, below the 15 it originally targeted. Several will be managed aircraft, he adds.

"Clearly, it is a smaller business than what we envisioned a year ago. But that is expected given the economic climate and tight credit situation," says Baier. "We began to talk to the manufacturers about delaying deliveries just before the stock markets crashed and as demand faltered. That was a good move as we can now manage the delivery schedules better."

The company, which places jets in Singapore for the South-East Asian market and Mumbai in India for south Asia, has attracted some fractions since it began operations last September. While its block charter and traditional charter businesses are slowly growing as well, BJETS is also moving into the aircraft management business.

"We did not expect so many owners to turn to us for quality management services. We will begin to manage several aircraft this year," says Baier. "The charter business is holding up. Some companies and top executives are shelving or delaying plans to buy business jets, but they still keen to on the idea and so turn their interest to the charter market."

BJETS is also trying to offer value added services. In India, for example, it has an agreement with helicopter operator Global Vectra Helicorp - which has seven helicopters available for charter - to provide access to destinations in the country without a landing strip.

"This association will strengthen our product offering in terms of accessing more destinations that do not have a landing strip but offer a helipad. While BJETS can access over 120 airstrips in India already, our partnership with Global Vectra will enable our customers to fly to all those destinations that cannot be reached by other aircraft," says Baier.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Study says airport fees in India among the lowest in world

Even as airlines hit out at private airport developers against the "exorbitant" charges being collecting from carriers, the Association of Private Airports Operators (APAO) — comprising private airport operators of India — has come up with a study that puts operating costs at major Indian airports as among the lowest when compared to other major airports around the world.

"The association wishes to clarify the misconception that airport charges in India are amongst the highest in the world," it said. In a survey conducted in 2008 by Jacob Consultancy, which specialises in aviation consultancy, Mumbai airport was ranked 50th in a sample of 50 worldwide representative airports. "This indicates that charges at Mumbai (Delhi airport has similar charges) were amongst the lowest," said APAO secretary general K L Kanthan.

Mumbai's charges are 16 per cent of what Toronto — which charges the maximum fee — collects from airlines. However, airlines do not buy the argument. "There are three components to airport charges. The passenger service fee (PSF), the navigation charges and finally the airport charges. Taken together, it forms a substantial chunk of our operating costs," said a senior official from Air India.

The APAO has also argued that airport charges in India were increased by 10 per cent only once after eight years against the aggregate inflation of 48 per cent, based on average annual cost inflation of 5 per cent. "The fact is that airport charges in India constitute only about 3.25 per cent to 3.5 per cent of total operating cost of airlines as compared to ATF (aviation turbine fuel) which constitutes 40 per cent of the costs."

However, according to Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), while there has to be a recovery model in the billions of dollars being invested in these airports, the introduction of airport development fees (ADF) and user development fees (UDF) came at a very wrong time.

"Airlines in India should understand that such investments need to be absorbed. But from their point of view these new charges came at a very wrong time when the industry was in bad shape and the extra costs passed on to passengers could not be absorbed by them”.

"Unlike airlines, which have the flexibility of focusing on profitable routes and reducing capacity, airports have to maintain the same level of service and facilities irrespective of numbers of passengers. Investment in airport capacity needs to be done with a 5-10 year future horizon to take care of future growth in traffic," the APAO statement said.

India's struggling airlines

“FLY the good times,” urges the slogan of Kingfisher airlines. But for India’s commercial-aviation industry, these are far from good times. On July 31st the Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA) threatened a one-day strike to put pressure on the government to save its seven members from going bust. As the government mulls a bail-out for one of them, the moribund state-owned Air India, the FIA is demanding that it also help privately owned airlines by lowering taxes on jet fuel, which are especially high in India. In response, the government warned airlines against inconveniencing passengers and offered talks. The FIA said it would put the strike, scheduled for August 18th, “on hold”.

Until recently India’s private-sector airlines, which carry more than 80% of domestic passengers, were lauded as a symbol of the country’s spectacular economic growth. But growth began to stall in 2007, when rapidly rising fuel prices pushed up fares and the economy slowed. In the first half of this year, airline passenger numbers fell by 8% to 21.1m. Last year India’s aviation industry lost more than $2.5 billion—about 25% of total world airline losses despite accounting for only 2% of global traffic. This year is set to be as bad.

For Kingfisher and its main competitor, Jet Airways, both full-service carriers, times are especially tough. Kingfisher, which reported a net loss of 2.43 billion rupees ($51m) in the quarter to June, owes more than 9.5 billion rupees in unpaid fuel bills and is surviving on bank loans. Jet Airways recorded a net loss of 2.25 billion rupees in the same period.

High fuel costs certainly exacerbate Indian airlines’ woes. Fuel tax is set by most of India’s states at 28%, whereas in much of the rest of the world aviation fuel is untaxed. The airlines want it to be declared an “essential commodity”, making it eligible for tax at 4%. A handful of states, most recently Rajasthan, have cut jet-fuel taxes to 4% in a bid to encourage airlines to establish local services. But others, including two of the most important, Maharashtra (home to Mumbai) and Delhi, are reluctant to follow for big airports: the tax is a valuable source of revenue out of which fuels used by the poor, such as kerosene and diesel, are subsidised.

But burdensome though the taxes are, they are not the only reason why India’s private airlines are suffering. Over-capacity should take much of the blame. “India’s airlines grew too big, too fast,” says Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. Anxious to chase market share, the airlines priced tickets well below cost. By some estimates, they bought twice as many aeroplanes as the market could support. As competing airlines poached pilots and mechanics, staff costs soared. “It was all about ego rather than business,” says Captain G. R. Gopinath.

Today those egos are badly bruised and, in line with trends elsewhere, it is low-cost airlines that are taking an increasing share of the market. Of India’s three listed airlines, a budget carrier, Spicejet, was the only one to turn a profit in the most recent quarter. The other two are Jet and Kingfisher. Fighting back, Jet launched a no-frills subsidiary, Jet Konnect, in May; last year, Kingfisher took over Air Deccan to create Kingfisher Red. The budget carriers are hoping to ride the economic downturn by offering better value to corporate travellers. But in the longer term they are eyeing a much bigger opportunity: the 98% of Indians who have never flown.

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