Flamboyance to fraud: How Indian aviation sector changed in the last decade

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A century is about events. A decade is about people. Perhaps nowhere does George Friedman’s maxim hold as true as in India’s aviation sector. The decade gone by has been dominated by personalities and the high and lows brought about by the actions of these dramatis personae, ranging from the flamboyant Vijay Mallya to Tony Fernandes.

Alongside the story of these men’s obsessions and destinies, the sector has tripled from 52 million passengers in 2010 to the estimated 170 million who have flown this year.  The players who dominate the skies, too, have changed. At the start of the decade, the airline that revolutionised air travel by making it affordable — Air Deccan (2003-2008) — was already history and the decline of its buyer, Kingfisher Airlines, had also already set in.

By early 2011, Kingfisher had stopped flying the good times and flown into headwinds. The crash landing came in October 2012. The airline’s licence was suspended, the extent of its dues became known to all, and employees found themselves jobless. The downfall of Kingfisher had financial implications for the whole sector: lessors and creditors became more wary of engaging with Indian carriers.

Meanwhile, one man’s pain coincided with another’s gain. IndiGo, the low-fare airline that had slowly but surely been building up a presence from 2006, began the decade with a $15-billion aircraft order for 180 A320s. Five years later, it started taking baby steps into international territory, albeit only in the neighbourhood.

GoAir, which had taken to the skies a little earlier than IndiGo but failed to grow with the same confidence, announced its first large order of 72 A320neos in June 2011. The airline has continued to plod on through the years, bidding farewell to its senior management with unerring regularity and providing a textbook example of how to manage with very little steering at the top.

Then, in June 2010, came a wild card entry. Chennai businessman and media baron Kalanithi Maran plunged in taking a controlling stake in SpiceJet, an airline that had been like an orphan, passed around from one owner to another. But Maran’s love affair with aviation proved to be a mere infatuation and in 2015 he handed the airline, having driven it virtually into the ground, to Ajay Singh, a former aide of Pramod Mahajan.

Despite SpiceJet’s troubles and a growing realisation that success in aviation is not a matter of just deep pockets, Tony Fernandes threw down the gauntlet in 2014, setting up AirAsia India in a joint venture with Tata.

Tata puzzled many when it announced two parallel ventures: AirAsia India with AirAsia Berhad and Vistara with Singapore Airlines. Was this a death wish, many wondered? For workers in the industry, such considerations didn’t matter; it meant more jobs in a struggling sector. As it turned out, both airlines have experienced losses; a given in the early days, but more worrying as time goes by and there is no sign of a reversal.

Amid this flurry of activity, Jet Airways began stumbling. It had been losing ground ever since the low-fare airlines made their entry. It failed to set its house in order and continued to grapple with mounting losses almost throughout the decade.

In 2013, it sold a large stake to Etihad and restructured its operations for a better fit with its partner, but the move failed to reverse its fortunes. The break point — one that had been avoided many times in the past — came in mid-2018, but the airline continued to sputter along till April 2019 when it sank, partly from the weight of a bloated management.

This year’s loss of Jet caused ripples of regret in the industry. Since 1993, Jet had occupied a special place in many hearts, a place Air India never occupied, and built a strong brand that most Indians were proud of.  If anything, many Indians and the industry regarded Jet as the national carrier, if only in aspiration and spirit. Months later, its loyal employees remain jobless, still convinced in their hearts that none of the other airlines is worth working for.

Throughout the decade, Air India remained the elephant in the room, a case study in mismanagement and vested interests combining to scupper its continued functioning. The airline kept sucking money into an infinite back hole. Employees have grown more disgruntled, more aircraft stand in hangars, and hopes of a revival remain dismal.

A sale? It’s been taken as a foregone conclusion ever since Home Minister Amit Shah took charge. If Shah can’t hawk it off, nobody can. Failure to sell may mean closure, an unpalatable option for a government that’s already mired in controversies.

Perhaps one of the other big regrets of the decade for the industry is the snail-like progress of Navi Mumbai International Airport, creeping towards completion since 1997. This, when Mumbai has been grappling with an acute shortage of slots owing to the existing airport being at near saturation point. In fact, when Jet’s slots became vacant, the other airlines swooped down like hungry vultures to grab them, with little regard for the larger consequences, some of which are already being felt.

The real estate and infrastructure crisis that began in 2012 was a setback for the airports sector. It led to a weakening in the balance sheets of the two main operators in the airport space: GVK and GMR. While both sold assets to keep their head above water, progress on renovating India’s other airports remained indifferent.

It would be fair to say that no dramatic improvement has occurred in airport infrastructure in the past decade. Here, a new player, the Adani Group, has surfaced in the last few years and has won the bid to modernise and operate six of India’s airports. However, its record is unproven and it remains to be seen if it can pull off what it’s promised.

As to safety, 2010 began with tragedy in May when an Air India Express flight crashed in Mangalore, killing 158 aboard. Safety concerns mounted, thanks to niggling problems with Pratt and Whitney engines on A320neos and the more recent grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX.

Incidents — as opposed to accidents — plagued India’s airspace, especially in the last two years. Safety remains a worry globally, but perhaps more so in India, where commercial considerations often outweigh those of safety.

One thing is for sure. The fun of flying shrank in proportion to less seat space and crowded airports. Many fliers boycotted market leader IndiGo, despite its all-encompassing schedule. Its quality of service fell — the lines were endless, aircraft cramped, and those who could afford it, preferred to pay more on a Jet/Vistara or even Air India.

A steady infusion of capacity ensured fares remained low, albeit with occasional spurts. If you add up the losses of the decade, they far outstrip the profits.

Finally, the government’s attempt to widen the net of fliers through the UDAN scheme aimed at making air travel affordable and accessible to the masses failed to get off the ground, although, to be fair, it has the power to change the face of the Indian flier in the decades to come.

Apart from the proposed Air India sale, assuming Shah can get it done, the industry is hoping the start of a new decade will bring some respite on domestic fuel prices and improvements in airport infrastructure.

But with a government seemingly distracted by a host of issues that seem neither urgent nor necessary, it is anybody’s guess whether 2020 will be a marked improvement on 2019, which will go down in the aviation sector’s history books as one of the first years of the decade with single-digit growth.

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