Monday, September 27, 2021

Tip of the iceberg of aviation crisis

Domestic aviation has not been able to fly in the past decade. Air India has been running in losses for many years, Jet Airways has gone bankrupt, Spice Jet nearly went under and the profits of Indigo Airlines have taken a hit. All this has taken place before the Covid pandemic which has only made things much worse. The reason is that the government has been focussing on improving regional aviation while the opportunity lies in long distance flights.

The cost of AC 2-Tier train travel from Delhi to Bengaluru in an express train is Rs 2,925. In comparison, a one-month ahead air ticket is available at Rs 3,170, which is nearly equal to the AC 2-tier fare. The difference is that AC 2-tier travel takes 2 nights and one day and involves expenditures of food during this period. The cost becomes more when the food expenditure is added. In comparison, air travel from home-to-home takes only about 7 hours. Therefore, air travel is successful both in terms of time and cost. However, short notice air travel becomes less competitive. In that case, air travel may cost Rs 7,000-plus while train travel would cost the same Rs 2,925 if tickets are available. This shows that basically air travel is successful for long distances.

Compare this with medium distance travel, say, between Delhi and Lucknow. AC 2-tier ticket fare is Rs 1,100 while one-month ahead air ticket fare is Rs 1,827. The time taken in home-to-tome rail travel is 10 hours against only 5 hours for air travel. However, train travel can be undertaken during the night while air travel has to be undertaken during the daytime and cuts into working hours. The productive day time is lost in air travel. Thus, medium distance travel is successful by train. Only those reluctant to undertake night travel say for health reasons; or train tickets not being available; or having some urgency to reach the destination may undertake air travel for medium distances.

Another policy being pursued by the government is to improve air connectivity with tourist places like Assam and Andaman Islands. Here the problem is systemic to the tourism sector that is beset with problems of law and order, lack of social cohesion and lack of investment in marketing. Tourism-oriented civil aviation will succeed only if tourism succeeds which shows no signs of happening in the near future.

It appears that these factors have been ignored by various agencies repeatedly. The government had constituted a working group to suggest policies for the expansion of domestic aviation in 2012. The group recommended that subsidies be given to regional aviation. Then the government made a National Civil Aviation Policy after which it started providing subsidies for three years to regional flights. Recently in 2018, Deloitte Consultants suggested expansion of aviation to smaller towns. All these reports have not delivered because an equally efficacious if not better alternative of train travel is available. The improvement of roads in the recent time has made available yet another alternative to air travel for medium and short distances. Travel from Delhi to Dehradun by road or air, for example, would take about the same 4 hours. However, road travel would not require standing in queues at check-in counters, security check, boarding the aircraft and collecting baggage. Thus, the policy of promoting regional civil aviation is a failure and will continue to be so. The government must instead focus on making long distance air travel more convenient. The recent proposal to expand the Indira Gandhi International Airport at Delhi is thus in the right direction. Further, road connectivity to the airports must be improved. The time taken for security check and baggage check-in must be cut. I know of travellers that arrive at airports in London merely 15 minutes before take-off and board the flight seamlessly.

27/09/21 Hans India

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