On January 13, a flight from Mumbai scheduled to reach Guwahati around 11 pm takes a detour because of adverse weather conditions and lands in Dhaka, Bangladesh at 4 am. A delay of 12 hours forces passengers to eat their dinners on the tarmac. As frustrations shoot past the boiling point, a passenger punches the pilot in the face.
But is it just bad weather at fault here? Or is there a problem with the Indian aviation industry? While fog has worsened situations, frequent delays and cancellations caused by operational issues have long been a concern. Indian airlines, whether it’s IndiGo that rules the sky with a massive 60.5 per cent market share, or Air India, Vistara, AIX Connect, and Spice Jet that share less than 10 per cent each, have been deviating from their schedules since September, long before fog was an issue.
Per Directorate General of Civil Aviation data, the on-time performance of IndiGo flights was 89 per cent in August 2023, which fell to 84 per cent in September, 78 per cent in November, and stood at 22 per cent on January 16, 2024. Similarly, the on-time performance of Air India fell from 81 per cent in August 2023 to 74 per cent in September, 63 per cent in November, and only 19 per cent now.
Pratt & Whitney GTF engines used in Airbus A320 family aircraft — the same that IndiGo operates — are facing issues. Because of this, IndiGo has already grounded 45 planes and it expects to further ground more than 30 aircraft by March, the airline said in an official statement.
In 2023, Air India last announced it would hire 900 pilots. Head of Inflight Services Sandeep Verma said that the airline was stepping up the hiring of more pilots and maintenance engineers. The CEO of Air India Campbell Wilson further said it was hiring 550 cabin crew members and 50 pilots every month. Air India conducted a similarly aggressive recruitment drive in 2022 as well.
This, surprisingly, has caused problems for the industry. In July 2022, on a day when Air India was recruiting, more than 900 IndiGo flights were delayed after a record number of cabin crew members took sick leaves. Reportedly, the supposedly sick employees were participating in the recruitment drive.
Aviation expert Pulak Sen told India Today that re-rostering pilots and grounding aircraft is creating a supply crisis that’s resulting in airlines delaying and cancelling flights. Sen, the Founder & Secretary General of MRO Association of India, assured, however, that the staffing crisis is temporary and that many pilots are being trained right now.
The overall loss suffered by India’s aviation industry in the financial year 2022-23 was Rs 173 billion. This was Rs 217 billion in the previous year and Rs 170 billion in the year before that, according to the credit rating agency ICRA.
Airlines, specifically, have been running under heavy losses for many years now. BSE data showed IndiGo reported a net loss of Rs 61.71 billion in the financial year 2021-22 and Rs 3.17 billion in 2022-23. SpiceJet also reported net loss of Rs 17.25 billion and Rs 15.03 billion in both years respectively. Air India reported a net loss of Rs 95.91 billion and Rs 113.81 billion during the same interval.
“The profitability of the airlines is significantly linked to aviation turbine fuel (ATF) prices, which account for 30-40 per cent of the total cost for an airline, and which has witnessed sharp volatility in the past,” Kinjal Shah, vice president and co-group head of corporate ratings at ICRA, told India Today. Aviation fuel’s dependence on exchange rate movements, airlines’ limited pricing powers, and a highly competitive market has led to losses, she explained.
Meanwhile, the DGCA on January 15 issued a standard operating procedures stating that airlines may cancel, sufficiently in advance, flights that are expected to be delayed beyond three hours. It laid guidelines regarding real-time information publication, staff sensitisation, and cancellation policies.