India’s largest low-cost carrier, the Deccan Aviation Pvt. Ltd-owned Air Deccan, will have to replace a thrifty, free-seating arrangement it has on the 350 flights it runs daily, replacing it with seat-numbered boarding passes. This is in order to comply with a new directive issued by the aviation regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA).
Air Deccan is the only airline in the country that does not provide seat numbers to its passengers as part of a business strategy to keep its planes flying more and staying on the ground less. It allows passengers to occupy any seat on boarding the plane on a first-come, first-seated basis, reducing seating time by up to 40-45%, according to company officials.
Tuesday’s move by the arm of the civil aviation ministry, which the airline said it is going to protest against, could result in higher airfares.
“If the government is going to dictate terms and get into micro-management of the airline, then we will have to take up the issue with them,” Air Deccan’s chief revenue officer Samyukta Sridharan said on phone from Bangalore. “It will have a huge impact (on us).”
The DGCA directive makes it compulsory for all airline companies to issue seat numbers to passengers before boarding. It also asks all airlines to make sure that handicapped passengers are the first ones to be boarded on a plane and the last ones to be deplaned.
Apart from helping the handicapped, the DGCA directive also serves another function. “Such allocation of seat numbers will also facilitate quick headcount of passengers for tallying with passenger manifest entries as and when required. Furthermore, in the unlikely event of an aircraft accident or in the case of unlawful interference with the aircraft, the seat numbers allotted to individual passengers will assist follow-up action and investigation,” the ministry said in a statement.
Except for the initial few months when the airline started operations, Air Deccan has never had a mechanism to allocate seat numbers to passengers. Some of the world’s profitable low-cost airlines, such as the Ireland-based Ryanair Ltd and the Thai AirAsia Co. Ltd-owned AirAsia, follow the same practice. This allows them to utilize the aircraft more by reducing its ‘turnaround time’ on ground.
This is how it works: every time a standard Airbus A320 aircraft, the most-used plane in India, lands, it spends about 30 minutes for maintenance checks, refuelling, cleaning and boarding of the next set of passengers.
Air Deccan says the new norms will increase the turnaround time by 20 minutes and that would reduce the number of hours a plane is in the air from the current average of 11 hours daily. Planes of full-service carriers such as Kingfisher Airlines Ltd fly only about nine hours a day.
An analyst criticized the government move. “At this stage of the industry (in India), restrictions on the airlines are not warranted for,” said Kapil Kaul, a New Delhi-based analyst with the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation. Airlines such as US’ South West Airlines Co. only started issuing seat numbers after being in service for 25 years. “You pay for preferred seating and anything additional. That’s how the low-cost model works the world over,” Kaul said.
Air Deccan flies about 7.5 lakh passengers annually with a fleet of 43 planes flying 350 flights daily.
The new norms applicable immediately, civil aviation ministry officials said, will help keep track of instances of overbooking at airlines and regulate the flow of passengers at the airport security gates.