How Pakistan can hurt Indian aviation by closing its airspace

West of the direct flight route between New Delhi and Almaty, the largest city of Kazakhastan, lies the zone where every flight flying westwards from India's capital has to fly over Pakistani airspace. Even a direct flight to Kazakhastan's capital Astana has to fly over Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) to reach its destination from New Delhi. This part of the Pakistani airspace that includes Gilgit-Baltistan is classified as area control centre (ACC) - 1 of the Lahore flight information region (FIR). Pakistan has two FIRs – Lahore and Karachi – that control airspace north and south of the 30 degree north latitude and 10 ACCs that stretch as far as areas over the Arabian Sea. With Pakistan occupying a critical role in air operations from India, the country's science and technology minister Fawad Hussain Chaudhary recently told the media that Prime Minister Imran Khan was mulling complete closure of the country's airspace for flights originating or going to India. If this happens, the consequences for India's financially fragile airlines could be deleterious. Air India and its subsidiary Air India Express may have to divert its flights to at least 23 destinations spanning Europe and the Middle East. Indigo and Spicejet would have to divert their flights to take more meandering routes for four destinations.  

All direct flights from New Delhi to Toronto and three airports on the US East Coast – New York, Chicago, Washington – fly over Pakistani airspace through area control centre -1. All these non-stop daily flights are operated by Air India. While Air India can get away by tweaking the flight paths of planes on these routes to fly over Tibet and then over Central Asia to Greenland before entering American airspace, it may find it more inconvenient to tweak its lucrative European routes. That's because most of these routes pass through the area control centres that roughly cut Pakistan into half. If Pakistan were to close its airspace, this would force airlines operating from Delhi to resort to abnormal diversions through China's Urumqui FIR or over the high seas south of Karachi FIR – a route that is taken by airlines flying directly from Mumbai instead of Delhi.

This in effect would lead to massive diversions of direct flights from New Delhi operating to Europe and much of the Middle East leading to substantial spike in fuel consumption, operating costs, losses and potentially higher airfares for international travellers to and from Delhi. "While all these are significant problems, the most pressing problem from any airspace closure will be the impact on an airline's fleet utilisation. With longer flying hours, the turnaround time will significantly increase. Airlines may have to reduce frequency which would have a significant impact on the viability of an airline's operations," said Harsh Vardhan, Chairman of Starair Consulting, a Delhi based aviation consulting firm. While most Indian and certain foreign airlines would suffer, the biggest hit would be taken by India's national carrier Air India owing to it being the largest international operator in the country. When Pakistan had closed its airspace for four months till July this year following the Balakot airstrikes by India's armed forces, Air India had suffered a loss of Rs 491 crore in four months till July 2. Any potential closure of airspace would again lead to disastrous consequences for Air India which has virtual monopoly on non-stop flights to US, Canada and Europe following Jet Airways closure. It's not just Air India but other airlines like Indigo, Spicejet and others which could face escalating costs on their newly launched international routes. While Indigo had lost Rs 25 crore till May 31, Spicejet suffered a setback of Rs 31 crore due to Pakistan's airspace restrictions imposed post Balakot.

For Indigo, one of the biggest setbacks would be on its Delhi-Istanbul route which it had quite enthusiastically launched earlier this year. Indigo's two daily non-stop flights to Istanbul fly right through the middle of Pakistan's airspace; enters Afghanistan, Iran, Azerbejain, Armenia and finally Turkey's airspace to reach its destination in six and a half hours. In the event of a closure, it would have to divert its flights south through Mumbai and the more circuitous Middle East routes. This could substantially increase its operating costs and force it to realign its current flight operations. Indigo flies to most European cities like Amsterdam, Zurich, Vienna and Brussels via Istanbul.

Air India which through its bigger arsenal of wide bodied aircraft operates more non-stop flights to Europe than any other airline would also have to bear the brunt of any closure of airspace by Pakistan. Almost all direct flights by Air India to Europe follow routes that involve flying over five area control centres in Karachi and Lahore FIRs bordering Kabul and Delhi FIRs. Diversions from these straight routes could hurt Air India whose fuel supplies have already been cut by suppliers at some airports due to non-payment of arrears. While both Indigo and Air India fly to Europe and Middle East, Spicejet's international destinations towards the West involve only Middle East in addition to Kabul. Spicejet has big plans to connect some of these Middle East destinations to smaller towns in India later this year and even into 2020. A closure of Pakistan's airspace can force Spicejet, which like other airlines is struggling financially, to put on hold some of these new plans. For instance over the next year, Spicejet planned to connect towns and cities like Bagdogra, Bhopal, Dehradun, Dharamshala, Coimbatore and others to Dubai through Delhi.

This could also have an impact on several international airlines operating in India. This includes Emirates and Etihad which use Pakistani airspace to connect Dubai to Delhi. In addition several smaller airlines like Ariana Afghan Air which connect Herat, Kandahar and Kabul to Delhi would have to radically reorient their routes. European airlines like British Airways, Finnair, Aeroflot, AlItalia, KLM Dutch Airlines and Luftansa which connect London, Helsinki, Moscow, Rome, Amsterdam and Frankfurt respectively to Delhi would also be adversely impacted. While some other airlines like Air Ethiopia and Air Astana that connect Addis Ababa and Astana to Delhi respectively would have to make only minor deviations of a few miles to fly outside Karachi and Lahore FIRs respectively and avoid Pakistani airspace.    

While Spicejet recorded its first ever loss of of Rs 316 crore since 2014-15 last year, Indigo recorded its lowest ever profit of Rs 156 crore since it went public in 2016. Amidst the prospects of an airspace closure by Pakistan, Indigo was looking good by posting a profit of Rs 1200 crore in the first quarter of 2019-20 as compared to Rs 28 crore last year. Air India, meanwhile, is expected to post a loss of Rs 7600 crore in 2018-19, with the Modi government desperately trying to sell off the struggling airline without success. Fuel expenses comprise 40 per cent of the total expenses of an airline. If Pakistan closes its airspace, this could not just lead to rise in aviation fuel costs for these struggling or recovering airlines but also higher maintenance costs due to planes spending more time in the skies flying labyrinthine routes to reach the same destination. Along with fuel costs, maintenance costs account for more than half of the expenses of these airlines. With most Indian airlines looking to grow internationally by flying west from Delhi, the most dangerous impediment to their soaring ambitions might just come from Pakistan yearning for vengeance in the name of Kashmir.

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