Mumbai: They are cutting flights to several destinations in the wake of a worldwide slump in business, but international airlines are doing just the opposite in India because they believe the country’s international air traffic will only grow in the coming years.
Interestingly, this comes even as the domestic aviation business is going through a downturn.
Large carriers already operating here such as British Airways and Emirates are either increasing the number of flights to Indian cities they already fly to, or beginning to fly to new cities, while smaller players such RAK Airways and Garuda Indonesia are starting to fly into the country.
India is seen as a growing market for international airline traffic and the current market size is nearly $5 billion (Rs21,000 crore) a year, said a senior official with a foreign airline.
“India, with its huge middle-class population of over 250 million, is like an untapped gold mine,” said K. Ravindran, chief operating officer, RAK Airways, which started operations in India from April, flying between Kozhikode and Ras al-Khaimah in the United Arab Emirates. “With its present international travel market not even covering 2% of the population, the country offers large opportunities for airlines. India is an important geographic area in all our future network plans.”
ON THE RADAR (Graphic)
Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer (Indian subcontinent and West Asia) of consulting firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, said India is a critical destination for international airlines based on the “various dynamics of competition and consolidation of their network”.
“So, when a rebound happens there (in global markets), these carriers will have an advantage as they would have already built capacities in India,” he added.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG, Singapore Airlines Ltd, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, British Airways Plc. (BA) and Emirates are in the process of increasing the frequency of their flights and connecting new destinations here.
Hong Kong Dragon Airlines Ltd (an affiliate of Cathay Pacific), Saudi Arabia’s Sama LelTayaran Co. Ltd (popularly known as Sama), and AirAsia Berhad are also launching operations in the country.
This surge, Kaul said, is also because international airlines are trying to gain a foothold in the India-bound market before domestic private carriers Jet Airways (India) Ltd and Kingfisher Airlines Ltd grow into a threat.
Jet launched its international operations in 2004 and Kingfisher will start flying overseas routes from September.
“Other reasons include a nearly liberalized bilateral government policy with other countries and sustained economic growth amidst recession,” he added.
For instance, Emirates, which recently increased the frequency of its Delhi-Dubai flights, is readying for another round of expansion by increasing the number of flights to Hyderabad and Bangalore from October.
Singapore Airlines is also adding five flights on its Delhi-Singapore sector from September, taking its total flights to Indian cities to 63.
“We will be adding two more flights in Bangalore as India is our key market,” said Gunjn Chanana, public relations manager for India at Singapore Airlines, without disclosing the airline’s growth rates here. “We believe there is potential (for more) growth.”
“India today is by far the largest single market for Qatar Airways with a network of nine cities, which represents more than 10% of our global network of 83 international routes,” said Qatar Airways’ chief executive officer Akbar Al Baker in an email.
Qatar Airways added Kozhikode as its ninth destination in India in June.
The global aviation industry is waging a losing battle against rising aviation fuel costs, which have increased 30% this year.
However, international airlines expect potential passenger growth from India to nullify the impact over the long term.
“For example, we have registered a load factor of 86% during the first half of this year in the India-Sharjah sector,” said Housam Raydan, corporate communications manager, Air Arabia PJSC which operates 86 flights a week between Sharjah and India.
Much of the rise in international air travel from India is driven by traffic to South-East Asian countries, while demand for destinations in the US, Australia and New Zealand is also increasing.
“The overall (number of) Indian arrivals to Malaysia from January to May 2008 is 234,245, a growth of 32.5% from last year. Similarly, Singapore has also witnessed above-average growth,” said Neelu Singh, chief operating officer, Ezeego1.com, a Mumbai-based online travel agency.
Naresh Goyal, founder chairman of Jet Airways, had said in an earlier conversation with Mint that Indian airlines pose a serious threat tointernational carriers on account of the quality of their service.
He had added that Jet, which earns nearly half of its operating revenues from international operations, would extend its global reach to other cities in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia in phases.
“However, international carriers will have to be a bit cautious in increasing their capacities considering the current downturn,” said Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, chief executive officer of Jet Airways.
His warning holds merit as three carriers—Linee Aeree Italiane SpA (Alitalia), Eva Air (Taiwan) and British Midland Airways Ltd—have suspended their Indian operations over the past two years, because of intense competition.
Ryanair Ltd, United Air Lines Inc., US Airways Inc., Qantas Airways Ltd and BA have either deferred, or cancelled their international flights to various cities owing to the high jet fuel prices.