[Ed’s Take: This is a story that had to be told. We started going around this all of September, trying to piece this together. Enjoy the read with a cup of coffee/tea!]
Air India currently has a fleet of 124 aircraft excluding subsidiaries. The fleet comprises of 22 Airbus A319 aircraft, 34 A320/A320neos, 20 A321s, 4 Boeing 747-400s, 18 777s (ER + LR) and 27 787-8s. Here is an inventory.
- Out of the 34 Airbus A320 family aircraft, 4 aircraft are a part of the classic series and are retired (AvGeeks, remember those double-bogies?). Another 7 Airbus A320neos will join the fleet by 2019.
- Of the 18 777 aircraft, 2 are back returned to Boeing for the retrofit them for VVIP operations. Of the 4 747s, one aircraft is stored at Mumbai airport without engines and 3 are currently used for Hajj flights. When not used for Hajj flights, they are used as Air India One (India’s President, Vice President & Prime Minister) and the Hyderabad-Jeddah and Hyderabad-Mumbai routes. Sometimes, Air India schedules the Queen of the skies on Mumbai-Delhi and Delhi – Kolkata routes as a capacity addition during peak season.
So technically, Air India has a fleet of 118 aircraft for daily operations.
Boeing 777 family
Air India has a fleet of 13 Boeing 777-300ER and 3 777-200LR aircraft, which they use largely for the USA routes. Air India also deploys them on Mumbai-Jeddah and Delhi-Jeddah routes apart from some Hajj flights. This is how Air India’s network works out with the 777s:
Sometimes the 777-200LR is used on Delhi- New York JFK or Delhi – Chicago and the Boeing 777-300ER on the Delhi-San Francisco, but that’s just rotation.
A singular Boeing 777-300ER is currently being used for Hajj Operations, but that is seasonal. Air India will soon launch a 3x weekly Mumbai-New York (JFK) flight using a Boeing 777-300ER aircraft. Even after that, the ultralong-haul operations still leave 4 Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, not accounting for the Hajj operations. We account for the fact that you would need aircraft on standby to account for maintenance and unforeseen delays. For instance, when some of their aircraft are infested with bedbugs.
One of the first things for an airline to do to make money is to have a network for maximising efficiency. But looks like Air India didn’t get that memo.
Air India could really restructure their 777 operations to maximise aircraft utilisation. Reducing time spent by aircraft on the ground, especially at USA destinations could free up aircraft, which could then be used for increasing frequencies.
Here is one instance of how the airline could optimize its timetable.
Even when you account for 1 Boeing 777-300ER which will be used for Mumbai-New York (3x weekly) service, Air India still has a couple of Boeing 777-300ER aircraft free for substitutions.
Additionally, Air India still can add more flights as their 777s stay on the ground for 11-14 hours on some routes. Like how about, a New Delhi – Newark daily by cutting down the halt at New York (JFK) on New Delhi – New York (JFK) route and the tag flight from Mumbai can be operated by another Boeing 777-300ER.
Contrary to the 777 fleet deployment, Air India has done a far better job with utilising their 787s. They are the backbone of Air India’s Europe and Far-East network. They are also used for flights to Australia as well as some Middle-East routes and domestic tag flights.
Currently, VT-ANK is out of service for maintenance and VT-ANO will start operating from October 7, 2018. For any given week, Air India utilises 22 Boeing 787-8 that leaves 5 Boeing 787-8 on the ground. One will be used for the upcoming Mumbai-Frankfurt route, so Air India still has 4 Boeing 787-8s to spare. With the Birmingham route seeing service reductions to 6 weekly services (3x Amritsar and 3x New Delhi), the aircraft utilisation will drop further.
Will they launch another route like Mumbai-Nairobi which has been long overdue with the additional aircraft? Or take up Mumbai-Brussels route as they did with New Delhi-Vienna when Austrian Airlines stopped operating the route? Or increase frequency on their Australia routes or on the London route?
Air India owns 6 Boeing 787s and 21 are leased. So think of it this way, Air India is only utilising their leased Boeing fleet while keeping the aircraft that they own on the ground.
Air India is essentially operating fewer frequencies to maximise the number of destinations they serve while underutilising their fleet.
New routes take time to mature. After a few months, or years sometimes, those routes are upgraded to daily service. Air India gets the first stage right but they sparingly follow up with capacity addition. For instance, another frequency to Australia just happened a few months ago.
Air India doesn’t have enough aircraft to operate daily service on all their routes but at least they can add more frequencies to some routes to effectively utilise their fleet.
Airbus A320 family
Air India has a fleet of 22 Airbus A319, 34 Airbus A320/A320neo and 20 Airbus A321 primarily used for their domestic operations apart from some international operations. Out of this fleet of 75 narrowbody aircraft, 4 Airbus A320 classic aircraft are already taken off the roster. Air India still has a few Airbus A320neos still left to be delivered which will join the fleet by 2019 end.
Currently, 1 Airbus A320neo, 3 A319s and 7 A321s are out of circulation. Which means 15% of their narrowbody fleet is grounded, which is a significant number.
If you look at their average utilisation per day, it is the lowest among Indian airlines. 6 Airbus A321 will start daily operations from the first week of October. There was a time in September 2018, when 1 Airbus A320, 1 A320neo, 2 A319s and 8 A321s were out of service. It represents 17% of their narrowbody capacity.
Air India won’t have a significant net addition to its fleet since the newer Airbus A320neos were ordered to replace Airbus A320 classic aircraft which were over 20 years old. Air India could improve their aircraft utilisation per day. I mean, just look at this data. IndiGo is clocking 17 hours of their birds approximately. Jet Airways is stretching at 14. So, what stops Air India?
Our Data was collected on the back of a snapshot earlier this week in October 2018.
Air India has added a lot of flights to Star Alliance member hubs in the past few years. They have added a lot of codeshares also. But they fell on short on a few important ones. For example, they added flights to Copenhagen and Stockholm both being hubs for Scandinavian Airlines. But did they enter into a codeshare agreement with them for flights out of those hubs? No. Why?
They added a flight to Melbourne and Sydney each but did they consider codesharing with Virgin Austraila out of these airports or with Air New Zealand for flights to New Zealand? Or codesharing with Thai for their extensive network out of Bangkok or ANA out of Tokyo? Or Austrian Airlines out of Vienna? The reason I am not mentioning Singapore Airline is that it will be a closed door once Vistara will fly internationally.
Don’t even get me started on Lufthansa as Air India codeshares only on a handful of destinations (17 destinations to be precise out of which 5 destinations are already served by Air India).
Air India needs to shift their entire European sector to a morning arrival in Europe if they want to enhance codeshares and successfully operate flights. It will help both passengers and themselves as passengers will get more options to connect to European as well as North and South American cities.
I don’t know what Air India had in mind when they went for an evening arrival in Europe as it is neither convenient for tourists nor businessmen nor connecting passengers. Which is perhaps the reason Air India is only looking at India connectivity and not connections at the other end.
Developing London Heathrow as a hub. Air India currently operates flights to London Heathrow from Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Delhi and Newark airport. [Update, AI is discontinuing Ahmedabad – Newark in November 2018]
United Airlines operates flights to London Heathrow from Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, Washington and Houston. Apart from this, Air New Zealand also operates flights to Los Angeles from London Heathrow.
But neither of them codeshare with each other even though they are members of the same alliance. Why? You gotta ask that question to the Network Planning department of the respective airlines. Air Canada operates flights from Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver, St. John’s, Halifax, Ottawa and Montreal to London Heathrow and Air India places its airline code on all of them. Then why not on United Airlines and Air New Zealand? United Airlines, Air Canada and Lufthansa have a transatlantic joint venture. Air India ever considered having a JV similar to this with United and Air Canada?
On a side note, Air India is running a loss on operating London Heathrow-Newark 3x weekly service. Why not codeshare on the 12 ‘clock United Airline flight out of London Heathrow? And instead, use that aircraft and slots either to increase frequency on Ahmedabad-London Heathrow route or add flights from another destination like Amritsar, Kolkata or Kochi? [Update, Air India seems to be reading my mind. More on that soon. As we go to publication, Air India has cut out the LHR-EWR flight]
Why not other Indian cities? British Airways already operates flights to Bengaluru, Chennai and Hyderabad apart from Mumbai and Delhi. Jet Airways connects Chennai and Bengaluru to Paris and Amsterdam from where passengers can connect to North America on Air France-KLM. This leaves Kolkata, Kochi and Amritsar which have a significant demand to Europe (especially London) as well as North America. Kolkata used to have a British Airways flight to London Heathrow and Amritsar doesn’t need an introduction on its fight against Air India to improve connectivity to UK and Canada. The Kochi route is an underdog.
What could Air India learn from Jet Airways?
Jet Airways has always been the front-runner in developing connections for passengers. Now with their recent JV with Air France-KLM and possibly a future one with Virgin Atlantic and Delta airlines they would rule India to USA and India to Europe sector. Air India, look how they added flights from Chennai to Paris and Bengaluru to Amsterdam as a part of the JV. Look how they opened up the tonnes of connections for passengers from these cities. Look how they added flights to Manchester from Mumbai and opened up connections to the USA from Manchester also. It’s always about how many flight options whether one-stop or non-stop, one can offer to passengers.
Will Vistara create more problems for Air India once they go international?
Well yes. Vistara already has an interline agreement with almost all major international airlines serving New Delhi airport and it will grow stronger over time. They are already competing with Air India as well as Jet Airways for connecting passengers through New Delhi. They don’t care if the airline is oneworld or Star Alliance.
With backing from Singapore Airlines strong network and partnerships, it will start to dominate the connection market and leave Air India as a dummy even though it is a part of Star Alliance. IndiGo is trying to currently corner as many flying rights which are currently available to dampen AirAsia India and Vistara’s international growth. Air India needs to strengthen partnership with Star Alliance members before Vistara does, to be competitive in the game.
Is there a future for Air India?
Air India does not have a stated expansion plan at the moment. There aren’t any aircraft slated to be delivered after 7 Airbus A320neo. They do not have a turnaround plan or a cost-cutting plan. Neither do they have a plan for effective utilisation of available resources?
Every time a report comes out about poor utilisation of aircraft, the go-to reason is lack of spares or shortage of crew. Then a few days later, Air India would send a report regarding hiring the additional crew but do they actually go with the exact requirement?
But you got to give Air India the credit where they deserve. Air India expanded out of Delhi big time providing a lot of non-stop flights which airlines in India won’t provide in the near future. They knew they won’t be able to do this with two hubs (Mumbai and Delhi) with limited aircraft and so Mumbai was given the axe.
They could have done another thing which would have been beneficial for everyone: shifting the maintenance base to New Delhi (as it is the hub for widebody aircraft but space constraint) or Nagpur (which they tried, but failed). The main reason Mumbai airport doesn’t have a parallel runway as a part of the development after GVK took over, is Air India’s M.R.O. hangars.
To quote J.R.D. Tata, “Even if a plane is used for twenty years, it should always look as if it had come out from its factory-new, inside and outside.” And it did when J.R.D. Tata used to run Air India even under the Indian Government.
Look at the current condition of their Boeing 777 fleet and even their Boeing 787s to some extent. All airlines need a person with a sense of direction on what he wants a passenger on his/her airline to experience, one who can guide a team to effectively run an airline, one who has a set goal for his airline. Vistara has Sanjiv Kapoor, SpiceJet has Ajay Singh, Jet Airways has Naresh Goyal and IndiGo has Rahul Bhatia. When will the government hire a person who can guide Air India to the glory days?
Air India has got one of the best and most experienced crews in the world. They just need to change their attitude. J.R.D. Tata during his Air India days used to tell his staff, “Always aim at perfection only then will you achieve excellence.” And this is not only for the crew but for the entire management team.
One thing is for sure, if they go ahead with another big order for more widebodies, one would see them dominating the Indian overseas market. But they need a good management team which can help it to get back on track and is free from government intervention. The last will always remain a dream.
On a side note, how lazy is Air India? They took an entire week before they announced Mumbai-Frankfurt flights after it was bookable.
It’s high time Air India goes back to the drawing board. They need to start making their schedules, codeshare agreements, aircraft deployment, refurbish their aircraft with a new hard product, improve the soft product, bring back “menus” on international flights, straighten up their customer service team for timely replies and reducing waiting time on calls, social media team, fix their website to make it more user friendly and so on. Air India’s current state is due to politics whether it is at management level, government level and so-on. And this is the same for all PSUs.
Will the Government ever wake up and try to revive Air India? Or is it over for them now?