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Last week, the Indian aviation regulator announced two decisions for domestic airlines on their flight to recovery. One, while extending price curbs on airfares till 31 March, it raised the floor and ceiling on airfares, effectively allowing airlines to charge more. Two, the regulator retained the cap of allowing airlines to operate up to 80% of seats they were scheduled to offer last summer, before the pandemic brought movement to a standstill.

Even as they add flights and passengers, airlines are far from 80% on both counts. In December 2020, domestic airlines flew 58% of the passengers they did in December 2019, show latest numbers from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), the regulator. Further, the ‘winter schedule’ submitted by airlines to the DGCA for operations between October 2020 and March 2021 showed the cumulative number of flights at 54% of the previous, normal season.

Twice a year, every airline has to submit to the DGCA details of their flight operations, including routes, frequency, timings and aircraft type. The 2020-21 winter schedule, the first put out by airlines in the wake of the pandemic, traces the contours of recovery and the distance to normalcy.

When compared to their respective 2019-20 winter schedule in terms of flight departures, Delhi leads the six metros in recovery, followed by Bengaluru. North India leads the five zones. Night slots (6 pm to midnight) and early-morning slots (midnight to 6 am) have seen a disproportionate cutback. And market leader IndiGo is faring much better in recovery mode than main rival SpiceJet.


Regardless of the prism, the headline numbers taper off around 60%, which shows the distance for domestic aviation to travel on the road to recovery. Beyond these headline numbers, there are smaller stories, and pockets of relative weaknesses and strengths.

For example, there are 10 airports that went off grid in the current winter schedule. These include Shirdi, Shimla, Puducherry and Bhatinda. At the other end of the spectrum, among airports that see more than 25 flight departures per week, seven have seen an increase in flights compared to 2019-20. These include Gorakhpur and Prayagraj in Uttar Pradesh, Kandla in Gujarat, and Leh in Ladakh.

In general, non-metros have fared better than the six metros in recovery. In the winter schedule of 2020-21, the number of metro-to-metro flights was around 46% of 2019-20 levels. By comparison, the number of flights that were either departing from, or arriving in, a non-metro were around 60% of their corresponding 2019-20 levels. Prominent non-metros showing above 70% recovery are Bhubaneswar (77%) and Patna (73%).


A wider network has strengthened the hand of market leader IndiGo over its nearest rival SpiceJet during the pandemic. IndiGo flew 61 destinations in 2019-20 and 59 in 2020-21. By comparison, SpiceJet dropped from 53 to 40. Before the pandemic struck, for February 2020, the passenger share of IndiGo was 48%, while that of SpiceJet was 17%, shows DGCA data. In December 2020, however, Indigo had increased its passenger share to 54%, while that of SpiceJet had dropped to 13%.

This deviation in passenger share is in spite of SpiceJet recording a higher average seat occupancy in December 2020 than Indigo (78% versus 72%). The difference is in how many flights each airline is operating, compared to their respective pre-pandemic normal, and how they are faring in their main markets.

IndiGo has done better than SpiceJet on both counts. In the winter schedule 2020-21, the total number of flights it scheduled were 57% of its 2019-20 levels. For SpiceJet, that number was only 45%. Further, for both airlines, South India and West India were the largest markets in terms of flight departures. In both markets, it’s IndiGo that has seen a better recovery than SpiceJet.


Among airlines, there’s another notable, contrasting story: between the two government airlines, Air India and Alliance Air, its subsidiary that doesn’t ply metro-to-metro routes. In the winter schedule, Alliance Air indicated a greater return to normalcy than parent Air India. In the winter schedule of 2020-21, Alliance Air said it would fly 71% of the flights it did in the winter of 2019-20. This is the highest among all airlines and significantly higher than the 49% of Air India.

Last week, the ministry of civil aviation put out a press release stating that domestic airlines operated 2,349 flights on 12 February (Friday) and carried 0.29 million passengers—the highest in a single day since the industry resumed operations on 25 May. Extrapolating that gives a figure of 8.7 million for a month. This is 19% higher than the 7.3 million passengers of December 2020, but still 47% away from the 12.8 million of January 2020. Airlines are clawing back, but it’s a long haul.

www.howindialives.com is a database and search engine for public data.

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