Mumbai: French aircraft manufacturer Airbus SE, which has over 300 aircraft in operations in India and orders outstanding for 530 planes, will deliver one aircraft every week over the next decade. The Toulouse, France-based company also expects domestic traffic to grow 5.5 times over the next 20 years (2017-36), reaching the same level as the US today, and making India one of the world’s fastest growing markets. To meet the exponential rise in both passengers and traffic, Airbus estimates India will need as many as 1,750 new passenger and cargo aircraft over the next two decades.

With its products like A320, A320neo (new engine option) and A321 aircraft already well placed in the Indian market, the aircraft maker expects the next phase of growth for Indian airlines to come from international as well as domestic routes, using its already serving aircraft and new ones like wide bodied A330, A350 and A380.

Srinivasan Dwarakanath, president, Airbus Division India, feels that a large number of Indians, who don’t yet fly, will take to the skies, courtesy the government’s Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) that aims to link smaller towns and cities with air connectivity.

Airbus is also working closely with various regulators on the Pratt & Whitney engine issue that has grounded several Airbus A320neo aircraft, powered by engines from Pratt & Whitney, and has affected the delivery schedule of the aircraft manufacturer.

However, despite the challenges, Airbus is keen to stick to its set delivery plan, Dwarakanath says. Excerpts from the interview:

How has the Pratt & Whitney engine issue affected Airbus? When do you expect a solution?

We work very closely with Pratt & Whitney as well as regulators like US aviation regulator Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Indian regulator Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), among others. There’s constant dialogue between us. Pratt & Whitney have told us that they have found a solution. They have also identified the particular modification (for the knife edge seal issue) that has led to the grounding of airplanes (14 A320neo aircraft powered by Pratt & Whitney engines belonging to IndiGo and GoAir have been grounded due to engine glitches since February). Once they are able to deliver, we will also be able to deliver aircraft (A320neo) to customers. There  are two solutions—immediate fix, for which they go back to the modification. And then they are also working on the root cause analysis, which will explain the cause of engine issue. We will also analyze the issue after Pratt & Whitney has come out with the cause analysis. 

After the Pratt & Whitney engine glitches, are more airlines opting for CFM (CFM International is a joint venture between GE Aviation, a unit of General Electric, and Safran Aircraft Engines—formerly Snecma—a unit of Safran) engines over Pratt & Whitney engines?

Both Pratt & Whitney and CFM are great engines. There are reasons why airlines fly aircraft of both these engines. I am convinced that Pratt & Whitney is a reliable engine manufacturer. It’s a new engine and they stretched its limits, in terms of technology. In terms of fuel consumption, airlines are very happy with the performance of Pratt & Whitney engines. Comments from IndiGo and GoAir have been very positive on the Pratt & Whitney engine. 

How many of Airbus deliveries have been affected by Pratt & Whitney issues?

It has affected our deliveries, but we are keen to stick to our set delivery plan.

How big an opportunity is the regional connectivity scheme for you?

Airlines are starting their operations on these (regional) routes on smaller aircraft. Airbus aircraft may not be the starting point for those routes (for many airlines). However, Airbus’s sister company ATR’s aircraft are great for these routes. And once airlines operate these routes with ATR planes extensively, they will have the opportunity to fly Airbus’s single-aisle aircraft like A320 on some of these routes (where there is enough passenger demand). We see RCS stimulating a lot of traffic and passenger growth.

Do you expect enough demand on RCS routes?

A vast majority of India’s middle class, about 300-400 million people, concentrated in smaller towns and cities still don’t fly regularly. These people are looking at having reliable and regular frequency when it comes to air travel. Once this happens, growth in these sectors will be stimulated. In order to sustain (passenger) growth in different parts of the country, tier-II and tier-III towns and cities should be well connected by air. Since we have several airstrips, it’s easier for us to convert them into airports to take benefit.

Are you in talks with Indian airlines for fresh aircraft orders?

We are in talks with all airlines (for our products), including those which already fly our planes. We are pitching both our narrow bodied and wide bodied aircraft (to them).

What are the ideal aircraft for Vistara and Air Asia India which have international plans?

If you look at Air Asia, they have done extremely well globally. Airbus aircraft like A320 and A320 Neo are great products for them to fly both domestic and international to neighbouring countries. The next (product) in line for airlines like them is the A321, which is slightly bigger than A320, with longer range. For instance, A321 can fly both to Tokyo in the east and Istanbul in the West from Delhi. It is also a great plane for domestic and RCS routes (provided there is traffic). Then we have the A330, which is very efficient. A330neo aircraft can fly from India to Europe to US as well. We also have the A350 aircraft in offering. For Vistara and Air Asia India, the aircraft that would help them scale up would be A320 and A320neos, A330s, and potentially A350s, too.

There are reports that state that IndiGo will place order for A330 aircraft.

We are in discussions with all customers as A330 is a great aircraft for India. But we don’t comment on speculation.

How many airlines are potential A330 customers in India?

Anybody who wants to fly (from India) to Australia or Europe and beyond—that are beyond the range of A320s—will possibly look at A330. It’s an efficient aircraft known for high reliability.

Indian airlines have ordered a lot of planes— is there adequate infrastructure for it?

At present, there are about 700-750 planes (more than 100-seater aircraft) on order book. The deliveries will happen between now and the next 10 years, We expect more orders after that. Airbus is committed on services (apart from selling planes), which is a key growth area for us. Few areas, where one can immediately see the need for resources are maintenance engineers (for airports and maintenance, repair and overhaul units) and pilots, both first officers and captains. In the next 20 years, India will require 24,000 pilots and maintenance engineers. About 10 years ago, Airbus set up its maintenance training facility in Bangalore. We have trained over 3,000 engineers. We are also working closely with DGCA on conducting examinations and training instructors. There’s definitely need for more engineers and pilots, as a lot of pilots especially are going abroad. We are also setting up our greenfield pilots training hub in Delhi, which will be operational next year. We have invested about $40 million in the facility that can train about 800 pilots a year. This facility should help address a part of the pilot shortage.

How big is the Indian aviation market?

In India, about seven billion people travel by train while 100 million travel by air. So, the number of people flying in future is going to be huge and we need to prepare ourselves with infrastructure for that growth. The regional connectivity scheme will bring in more flyers from smaller towns and cities.