2024 is likely to be many things for many people but for the airline and aviation sector in India, it will be seminal in a manner of speaking. This article will explain why.

And Then There Were Two

One, two new greenfield airports - one in Uttar Pradesh’s Jewar Noida International Airport (NIA), a 100% subsidiary of Zurich Airport International and the other in Navi Mumbai to cater to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region and a few areas nearby - will announce India’s arrival as one of the economic powerhouses of the coming century. While the former has been closely monitored by Yogi Adityanath, the second has been under the watch of the Prime Minister himself.

Both airports are in full-throttle construction mode and are expected to be ready and to be showcased as two big infrastructure achievements post a largely expected win for the BJP government in the 2024 general elections. Navi Mumbai in particular is a bit like the Air India sale, something that this government managed to pull off but something successive governments have failed to do for decades on end.

Although viability remains a big question mark over NIA, the facility being built at a cost of ₹5,730 crore in phase one will redefine the roadmap for the flying public from many parts of Uttar Pradesh but also within the national capital region (NCR) as it pulls in fliers who find it easier to navigate through Noida’s less congested roads and highways to board an aircraft. To the airline industry's absolute delight, it is likely to force Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) to pull up its socks and be more amenable to what the airlines need, tilting the equation a bit in their favour.

An even bigger feather in the ruling government’s cap will be the second and urgently needed airport for India’s financial capital Mumbai - the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA). The city, the country and the aviation industry have paid a heavy price in the last two decades for its massively constrained MIAL airport in Vile Parle East. The airport has been in the making since 1997 and despite several chief ministers over the years putting their full weight behind it, the project remained in limbo.

It is now proceeding with all guns blazing and is likely to be ready if not by its highly ambitious deadline of December 2024 – soon after. For residents, it is likely to be a hidden blessing in more ways than one as many of the link and access roads are being worked upon with new energy by the state authorities as the realisation hits home that access to a new greenfield airport is the single most critical aspect of making it a success. For a city that lives, breathes and dreams traffic snarls, this is a biggie.

But if these two greenfield airports get off the ground in 2024, the year is also likely to see smaller and equally required improvements at some of the smaller airports in cities like Lucknow, Jaipur, Mangalore, Guwahati and a clutch of others. As of now, only Ahmedabad of the recently privatised AAI airports - now being revamped, managed, and run by Adani Airports Holdings Limited (AAHL), has shown clear and perceptible improvement. Most of the others are yet to shed the public sector feel and touch, both for the passenger and any other stakeholders.

Rays of Light From Dark And Dodgy Tunnels

But it is on the airline front that 2024 promises far more visibility and clarity. With the sale of Air India in 2021, India’s airline industry stands fundamentally altered. And 2024 is likely to further see a duopoly-like situation emerging with IndiGo occupying the lion’s share of the market and Air India as a distant second for now.

As Go First’s bankruptcy showed, the changed structure of the skies is likely to make it almost impossible for smaller players to jostle and keep their pies intact. SpiceJet has been struggling almost relentlessly since the pandemic and despite its never-say-die chairman Ajay Singh’s resilience in the face of what can only be described as dire circumstances, the airline has lost market share and has fewer planes in the air at any point. 2020-2023 have all been highly forgettable years from the airline’s point of view but 2024 should be a decider. Singh now has the Maran dispute hanging before him like a Damocles sword and this one matter alone could determine the ultimate fate of all the actors in this drama. Even as this article went to press, the airline was trying to raise Rs 1000 crore of fresh capital through the issue of equity shares and/or convertible securities on a preferential basis. Whether the amounts raised would be enough to douse the many fires it finds itself in remains unclear.

If SpiceJet’s fate should be clearer in the coming year so should Akasa Airways, which started with the advantage of no pandemic-related baggage in August 2022 and appeared to be on a strong growth path till it shot itself in the foot when it decided to take legal action against a set of commanders who resigned without serving the notice period the airline says they were due to. Skilled commanders have been in demand ever since traffic rebounded and airlines started ordering aircraft (Air India’s mammoth order) so Akasa has not found it easy to find crew as per its requirements. But its actions are likely to worsen this problem. Moreover, after the passing away of Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, there is a bigger cloud on the airline’s financial muscle in an industry that seems to require deeper and deeper pockets every year.

But all eyes in 2024 will be glued on Air India, which on January 27, will celebrate turning two or rather completing two years with a new pilot in the cockpit. While Air India has so far focussed and got the easy part done, the hard part is yet to follow. Ordering aircraft and spending lavishly on a brand upgrade was perhaps not the ideal first step for the infant in its new avatar but this is what it chose to do.

Safety has been a big concern among fliers for most of this year as Air India remained under India’s safety watchdog the Director General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) lens for a series of violations. On the international routes, some positive feedback is coming in on the leased aircraft service but most of Air India’s own aircraft are in too poor a shape and will take a while to refurbish and revamp. Domestic too remains far less reliable and efficient than IndiGo and even sister Vistara. Domestic Air India flights are often late with haphazard boarding. Staff, however, appear to have pulled up their socks when compared with its grumpy public sector days. They are more pleasant and on the ball, possibly a direct consequence of the Tata takeover.

Now, passengers are looking forward to an Air India fully walking the talk and delivering a high quality, efficient, on-time, incident-free service both internationally and domestically. This is the big expectation from the Indian public and while the jury is out on whether 2024 will deliver on this count, many are certain that by 2025, things should be markedly better. 2024 is also likely to see the full merger of Vistara into Air India, which employees are resigned to and fliers - a small but loyal set - are wary of.

The good news however is that 2024 and 2025 are largely expected to wipe out some of the losses the industry totted up during the pandemic and post it. IATA has predicted a US $ 25.7 billion profit for airlines globally in 2024 with a 2.7% net profit margin. How the Indian carriers individually fare depends of course on a whole lot of factors peculiar to the local context, including how those who drive these airlines cope and choose to steer their businesses. From the government’s end, a thorough look at all the taxes and how to make aviation turbine fuel (ATF) prices paid in India more compatible with global rates would help matters.

If Wishes Were Horses…

Perhaps one of the biggest problems facing the aviation industry currently is the shortage of trained, senior and skilled commanders but it is fair to say that the sector as a whole is very short on talent, especially at the top management level.

While both Air India and IndiGo have CEOs who are from overseas, Air India recently brought in a COO from overseas besides a head of safety. This has been the story of private Indian carriers from the word go. That’s why the industry is looking forward as much to the new proposed aviation academy that the Tata group is in the process of starting and which will be headed by the former CEO of AirAsia India Sunil Bhaskaran, as it is to a revamped service and airline. Expectations are that the academy will go beyond just pilot, crew and engineer training but also offer specialised management courses for those keen to make a career in the sector so India becomes more Atma Nirbhar in this crucial aspect.

Another big concern for the sector and fliers remains safety and this is more of a concern with the smaller airlines as they face financial troubles. Typically, in such times, the carriers tend to delay routine maintenance checks and “cannibalise” parts from aircraft that are grounded for use in those which are still flying. This is something that the authorities need to be vigilant of at all times in India’s context. With its tendency and comfort level with “jugaad”, safety in general is something the authorities in India and those responsible within airlines cannot afford to take their eyes off at any and all times.

In the past few months and for most of this year, the spotlight has been on commanders and crew after a series of unexplained deaths were reported even among the younger crew members (age group 30-45) in the sector. The most recent was the death of a 37-year-old Air India commander on duty, ostensibly on account of heart trouble although the root cause behind these incidents remains unknown — it could be unhealthy lifestyles, after effects of Covid-19, or other undetected illnesses. Some even believe it could be related to Covid vaccines. Nonetheless, the untimely deaths threw the spotlight on how pilots and crew suffer from excessive fatigue because of the nature of their job. On November 8, the DGCA, India’s safety regulator issued a new set of draft rules and guidelines on flight duty timings to ensure that pilots get adequate rest, which need to be finalised and set in stone. Disgruntled or unfit pilots are the last thing passengers need or the sector can afford.

Last but not least, a recent incident at a flying training school threw the spotlight yet again on the functioning of DGCA and how corruption in the organisation continues to thrive and endanger lives. A thorough relook and revamp of this body is something the sector needed yesterday. From the aviation sector point of view, 2024 can no longer afford to overlook this critical aspect.

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