Air travel is on the upswing and carriers are drawing up strategies to capture a larger pie of passenger traffic but issues like shortage of engines and non-availability of flight attendants are forcing airlines to adjust their growth plans.
These issues were raised as the aviation industry gathered at the CAPA India Aviation Summit here on Monday.
Even though flights on the India-US routes are in high demand, Air India will be operating six fewer weekly flights between these two countries over the next two-three months due to the non-availability of flight attendants for wide-body planes. “The airline hopes to reinstate them (the cancelled flights) in two-three months as the crew get progressively inducted into flying duties,” Air India CEO & MD Campbell Wilson told reporters.
The demand has been so high that Air India charged 28.6 per cent higher fares on the India-US routes in the April-November period of 2022, as compared to 2019, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. Currently, Air India runs 47 flights a week from India to New York, Newark, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington DC. It will cut three weekly flights each to Newark and San Francisco.
Due to the shortage of flight attendants, some of Air India’s flights to Bangkok and Dubai would be operated on Airbus A320 aircraft, instead of the wide-body Boeing 787.
The airline has expanded its network after a change in ownership last January. Grounded aircraft are being restored and new frequencies are being added. The airline has over 1,400 cabin crew under training and has inducted 100 pilots for its Boeing 777 aircraft, which it flies to the US. An extra 140 expatriate pilots, too, are being hired to support the expansion. But a mismatch in addition of aircraft and non-availability of crew has resulted in the airline delaying and cancelling some of its flights.
Domestic and international air traffic is expected to grow upwards of 20 per cent in FY24 as Indian carriers grow their fleet size, CAPA India stated during the summit. Air traffic has made a strong return already after Covid-19 pandemic-led disruption but aircraft manufacturers are struggling to keep pace with demand. Engine makers, too, are grappling with supply-chain issues, resulting in a shortage of engines and parts.
According to CAPA India estimates, more than 100 aircraft (15 per cent of total fleet) of Indian carriers are on the ground due to supply chain and non-supply chain issues.
Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, too, touched upon the issue in his inaugural address at the summit. “Surprisingly and shockingly, the situation has turned the other way. Where at one point we did not have passengers to fill our airplanes … now we do not have enough airplanes to fly our passengers,” he mentioned.
To help fill the gap, India has tweaked its airplane leasing programme, including more “wet leasing” or renting of planes with a crew, for domestic and international routes, Scindia added. The minister also announced measures taken to strengthen institutions, including the hiring of staff at the Airport Economic Regulatory Authority and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation. Air traffic controllers, too, are being hired to support the growth.
According to Cirium, around 34 of 304 planes of IndiGo are currently grounded. This is due to the delay in the supply of engines by engine maker Pratt and Whitney. When asked about the grounding of aircraft, IndiGo CEO Pieter Elbers replied: “Look at the fleet situation today. We are the first airline to operate 300 aircraft. We have taken a host of steps to deal with supply-chain challenges. One is the lease extension of the existing aircraft. Then we are wet leasing the aircraft and operating to Istanbul. There is a robust market demand and Indian consumers are back to travelling. With the initiatives that we have taken, we are at least able to provide that capacity towards our consumers.”
On how long it would take (to bring grounded aircraft back to service), he said: “I think you should ask OEMs rather than me. The quicker it gets resolved, the better it is.”
IndiGo has 500 aircraft on order and is reported to be in discussions for another large order. “With the aircraft order that we have, we have a steady flow of deliveries until the end of the decade, which basically enables us to grow till that time. We have flexibility with the leases. So, IndiGo is at a very good spot today,” Elbers said.
“It is interesting that now, Air India has placed this order and you are asking — should you move? I would say IndiGo has always taken steps when it feels it is the correct time… As much as we are aware of the order, we take our own steps at our own moments of decision-making,” he added.