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Business News/ Companies / News/  Why are IndiGo, SpiceJet, others fighting over ‘most punctual’ crown?

Why are IndiGo, SpiceJet, others fighting over ‘most punctual’ crown?

Lack of product differentiation, an aware set of passengers who complain to airlines on social media on flight delays and flight timings seen driving the trend

Airlines like IndiGo, SpiceJet and Vistara have placed newspaper ads to claim the ‘most on-time’ title for flight timings and even sparred on social media. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/MintPremium
Airlines like IndiGo, SpiceJet and Vistara have placed newspaper ads to claim the ‘most on-time’ title for flight timings and even sparred on social media. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

New Delhi: In the 1970s, Indian Airlines’ Chennai-based pilot Pattabhi Ramaiah was a popular Boeing 737 commander.

During the monsoons, when it was common for flights to be delayed by rain, passengers would call up the airline, which has since merged with Air India, to check if Ramaiah was piloting their flight and turn up at the airport only if he was.

“He used to say ‘fly at clacker speed, the faster you are the faster you would come out of the weather,’’’ recalled Mohan Ranganathan, a former Boeing 737 commander with Indian Airlines. “His flight had never been late."

Clacker is the audio warning that is activated when the airspeed needle touches the maximum permissible limit.

Not that any one really cared about on-time arrivals—the concern was mainly about being delayed for hours together by monsoon rains or winter fog. “We never use to announce we are on-time. It was taken for granted," Ranganathan said.

Only in recent years have some airlines started plugging punctuality as their unique selling proposition, turning it into a bone of contention. And in the past one year, airlines have taken the fight for the tag of ‘most on-time’ to another level.

Airlines like IndiGo, SpiceJet and Vistara have placed newspaper advertisements to claim the title and even sparred on social media.

Claims and counter-claims over which is the most punctual airline stem from a lack of product differentiation and an aware set of passengers who track and complain to airlines on social media when their flights are delayed, analysts said.

“I think IndiGo has been the market leader for on-time performance for long, while others have been always been a little shoddy. Last three-five years others were lagging behind IndiGo by about 10-25% and have since caught up to a large extent," said an analyst who tracks the space closely but declined to be named “The other airlines are therefore wanting their share of the on-time performance space: We have also arrived, sometimes exceeded IndiGo, why are you not talking about us? There is a catchup game here and that’s one of the reason why other airlines are keen to advertise their on-time performance."

The punctuality level of IndiGo, which used to be on time with 90% of its flights in 2014, as per the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) data that is only released for metro cities, has dropped to 80% and has lagged SpiceJet for many months; Vistara has led the pack in some months.

To be sure, IndiGo’s network has grown many times—it now has nearly 130 planes, controlling 40% of the domestic market, compared with SpiceJet’s 13% with about 50 planes and Vistara’s 3% with 13 planes.

Air India, which had taken to announcing “we are again on-time" on its flights in 1990s when the skies were opened to private airlines like Jet Airways and Air Sahara, has since dropped the practice.

As the flight network becomes complex with regional flights from Kanpur, for instance, feeding an airline’s non-stop overseas routes via Delhi, network performance slips unless a lot of control is exercised, the analyst cited above said.

Elsewhere in the world, on-time arrivals are taken for granted. Emirates, Singapore Airlines, United, British Airways and Lufthansa don’t have to advertise the fact.

They “differentiate through product and appeal to their passengers", the same analyst said, “because roughly everyone should have the same level of on-time performance and that should be between 85-95%".

In India, the aviation space has become dominated by low-cost airlines over the past decade-and-a-half with little differentiation and almost no compelling loyalty programmes, leaving little for the airlines to market themselves to passengers.

“Even now after 24 years of liberalization of aviation in India, we are still at the first step of consumer need, even though we must note we have improved a lot when it comes to on-time during the past decade," the analyst said.

IndiGo, GoAir, Vistara, Jet Airways and Air India declined to comment for this story.

“A battle over OTP (on-time performance) is a great thing for the consumer and we believe that every airline should make an effort to better the other," SpiceJet said.

Consumer group Air Passengers Association of India (APAI) said social media and the money being spent by airlines on advertising OTP was adding to passenger awareness.

“We must accept the fact that people take to flying to reach their destination on-time and are willing to pay for the same," APAI said in an emailed statement.

New York-based former Jet Airways CEO Steve Forte said that even in early 2000 Jet never really advertised its on-time performance.

“At Jet we had an OTP of over 90% but we did not have to advertise it. There was a huge difference in service quality between Jet and Indian Airlines, Air India and Sahara. We advertised our destinations and flight times," said Forte. “In the rest of the world I have not seen OTP advertising in many years. In effect it is the total service experience that counts and not just the OTP. It is a waste of advertising money."

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Published: 22 Mar 2017, 01:20 AM IST
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