OP­ER­AT­ING ON THIN LONG ROUTES

For a healthy growth of the In­dian air­line in­dus­try as well for en­hanced con­ve­nience to pas­sen­gers, there is no op­tion but to pro­vide di­rect point-to-point aerial con­nec­tiv­ity

SP's Airbuz - - Front Page - BY B. K. PANDEY

THERE IS NO DOUBT that air travel pro­vides the level of con­ve­nience that other modes of trans­porta­tion do not. A jour­ney on board an air­craft, whether an air­liner or a busi­ness jet, helps save time es­pe­cially when trav­el­ling over long dis­tances even within the coun­try. Some­times, air travel could be the only means to reach re­mote ar­eas or those lo­ca­tions that are not con­nected by other means of sur­face trans­port such as road or rail net­works. In In­dia, the fa­cil­ity to travel by air for the gen­eral pub­lic has un­der­gone a sea change from the time the In­dian air­line in­dus­try which had been to­tally un­der the con­trol of the Govern­ment of In­dia since it was na­tion­alised on Au­gust 1, 1953, was thrown open to the pri­vate sec­tor in the early 1990s.

The In­dian air­line in­dus­try re­ceived a fur­ther im­pe­tus with the emer­gence on the scene of low-cost car­ri­ers (LCC), a con­cept in­tro­duced by Cap­tain G.R. Gopinath in 2003. And more re­cently, the NDA Govern­ment has launched a cam­paign to bring the fa­cil­ity of air travel to the masses at af­ford­able costs through ma­jor changes in the Na­tional Civil Avi­a­tion Policy (NCAP) the lat­est ver­sion of it was un­veiled in June 2016. The newly in­tro­duced pol- icy changes have been de­signed to ex­ploit the im­mense po­ten­tial of growth that lies in the re­gional avi­a­tion seg­ment of the in­dus­try. In pur­suit of this ob­jec­tive, the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion (MoCA) has also crafted the Re­gional Con­nec­tiv­ity Scheme (RCS) as part of the NCAP, which en­tails the build­ing and bring­ing into the op­er­at­ing net­work in a phased man­ner, a large num­ber (re­ported to be around 200) of no-frills air­ports in the hin­ter­land in­clud­ing re­mote and in­ac­ces­si­ble ar­eas of the coun­try, to pro­vide aerial con­nec­tiv­ity to Tier-II, Tier-III and Tier-IV cities that cur­rently do not fig­ure in the ex­ist­ing aerial con­nec­tiv­ity net­work.

The In­dian air­line in­dus­try has come a long way since its in­cep­tion and es­pe­cially over the last two and a half decades. How­ever, de­spite the im­pres­sive growth, some frus­trat­ing gaps in the air trans­porta­tion sys­tem do con­tinue to linger thereby ad­versely af­fect­ing both its ef­fi­ciency and pro­duc­tiv­ity. Amongst the stake­hold­ers, the worst suf­fer­ers of the ad­verse con­se­quences of this malaise are those that travel by air and not the air­lines them­selves. There is no doubt that these gaps need to be plugged to make the air trans­porta­tion sys­tem more ef­fi­cient, dy­namic as well as to re­duce the level of in­con­ve­nience for the trav­el­ling pub­lic.

THIN LONG ROUTES. In a con­ver­sa­tion in the re­cent past with Jayant Baran­wal, Edi­tor-in-Chief, SP’s Avi­a­tion, Ra­jiv Nayan Choubey IAS, Sec­re­tary in the Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion, while com­ment­ing on the In­dian air­line in­dus­try, spoke of “thin long routes” and the re­luc­tance of In­dian re­gional car­ri­ers to op­er­ate on these. In his per­cep­tion, if In­dian car­ri­ers be­gin to op­er­ate on thin long routes, it would help air­lines to avoid tran­sit­ing through heav­ily con­gested ma­jor hub air­ports mak­ing it more con­ve­nient for the trav­el­ling pub­lic. In the process, it would also help in re­duc­ing the crip­pling con­ges­tion at the six ma­jor hub air­ports that cur­rently han­dle around 65 per cent of the civil air traf­fic in the coun­try. As In­dian car­ri­ers fur­ther ex­pand their fleets with the pas­sage of time and in­crease the num­ber of flights, move­ment of air­craft through the six ma­jor hub air­ports will con­tinue to in­crease thus fur­ther ag­gra­vat­ing the prob­lem of con­ges­tion at the ma­jor hub air­ports that have al­ready reached or even crossed the sat­u­ra­tion point. This has al­ready be­come a se­ri­ous is­sue for all stake­hold­ers and the air pas­sen­ger be­ing the worst af­fected.

The ex­pres­sion “thin long routes”, not com­monly used in civil avi­a­tion par­lance, are those routes that are not “heav­ily trav­elled” on. In ef­fect, it im­plies that the num­ber of pas­sen­gers trav­el­ling on these thin long routes is not large enough to gen­er­ate pas­sen­ger load fac­tors of the level re­quired to fi­nan­cially jus­tify de­ploy­ment of large ca­pac­ity air­lin­ers such as the Air­bus A320 or the Boe­ing 737 fam­ily of air­craft on these routes. Also, in the In­dian con­text, dis­tance-wise, these routes are so long that that these are clearly be­yond the range of lower ca­pac­ity air­craft such as the ATR fam­ily or the Bom­bardier Q400, both types of air­craft pow­ered by tur­bo­prop en­gines with max­i­mum ranges be­tween 1,500 to 1,700 km. These air­craft are cur­rently de­ployed for en­hance­ment of re­gional con­nec­tiv­ity. As nei­ther the large ca­pac­ity Air­bus A320 nor the Boe­ing 737 fam­ily of air­craft, both at the higher end of the spec­trum and the tur­bo­prop air­lin­ers at the lower end, op­er­at­ing with In­dian car­ri­ers, are suit­able to op­er­ate on thin long routes that would re­quire the air­lin­ers to fly dis­tances of 2,000 to 2,500 km. As the thin long routes do not pro­vide ad­e­quate pas­sen­ger load fac­tors, this seg­ment of the op­er­at­ing net­work re­mains prac­ti­cally un­sub­scribed. Pas­sen­gers de­sirous of trav­el­ling on these seg­ments have no op­tion but to tran­sit through one of the ma­jor hub air­ports. Con­se­quently, apart from the problems as­so­ci­ated with con­ges­tion, they have to bear the bur­den of higher air fares, time penalty and avoid­able ha­rass­ment of chang­ing air­craft at the ma­jor hub air­port they are re­quired to tran­sit through. In the fi­nal anal­y­sis, it is the pub­lic trav­el­ling by air that has to suf­fer the con­se­quences of this yawn­ing gap and the anom­alies in the op­er­a­tional par­a­digm of In­dian car­ri­ers.

PER­SPEC­TIVE OF IN­DIAN CAR­RI­ERS. It is a well known fact that one of the pri­mary aims of air­lines is to be prof­itable which in­deed is a pre­req­ui­site for their very sur­vival. To achieve this ob­jec­tive, the reg­u­lar air­lines op­er­ate large jet pow­ered air­craft such as the Air­bus A320 or the Boe­ing 737 fam­ily of twin-jet air­lin­ers with a ca­pac­ity of seat­ing around 200 pas­sen­gers, over longer routes that that in­vari­ably pro­vide con­nec­tiv­ity be­tween the ma­jor hub air­ports as also to other points or des­ti­na­tions. These sec­tors pro­vide re­spectable and re­mu­ner­a­tive pas­sen­ger load fac­tors. The re­gional air­lines on the other hand, op­er­ate fleets of smaller air­craft such as the ATR or Bom­bardier Q400 tur­bo­prop plat­forms. These are of much lower seat­ing ca­pac­ity of around 70 to 75 pas­sen­gers and with much lower range that are be­tween 1,500 and 1,700 km and aim to con­nect smaller air­ports with the near­est ma­jor hub air­port. This has led to the de­vel­op­ment of the hub-and-spoke con­cept and in ef­fect, the re­gional car­ri­ers thus serve only as feeder air­lines for the reg­u­lar car­ri­ers. Un­der the ex­ist­ing pat­tern, re­gional car­ri­ers have not been pro­vid­ing con­nec­tiv­ity amongst re­gional air­ports pri­mar­ily be­cause op­er­a­tions on the re­gional routes are not re­mu­ner­a­tive ow­ing to low pas­sen­ger traf­fic and load fac­tors that do not jus­tify the heavy in­vest­ments re­quired.

THE WAY FOR­WARD. For a healthy growth of the In­dian air­line in­dus­try as well for en­hanced con­ve­nience to pas­sen­gers, there is no op­tion but to en­hance di­rect point-to-point aerial con­nec­tiv­ity. This will help elim­i­nate un­nec­es­sary tran­sit stops for pas­sen­gers at the ma­jor hub air­ports trans­lat­ing into lower air fares, mit­i­gate the level of con­ges­tion and re­duce to­tal fuel burn thus ben­e­fit­ting the en­vi­ron­ment as well through lower emis­sions. There is there­fore the need for In­dian car­ri­ers to look at op­tions be­yond the hub-and-spoke model and con­sider op­er­at­ing di­rect point-to-point and es­pe­cially on thin long routes. It goes with­out say­ing that to break out of the huband-spoke model and fo­cus on thin long routes, the air­lines would have to in­duct air­craft with range higher than what the ATR fam­ily and Bom­bardier Q400 are ca­pa­ble of. For bet­ter pas­sen­ger load fac­tors, it would also be de­sir­able to se­lect a plat­form with seat­ing ca­pac­ity lower than the 180 to 200 seats that the Boe­ing 737 and Air­bus A320 of­fer. In other words, for op­er­a­tions to be fi­nan­cially vi­able on thin long routes, the air­lines will need an air­craft that has range and seat­ing ca­pac­ity that lies be­tween the two cat­e­gories of plat­forms cur­rently be­ing op­er­ated for re­gional and reg­u­lar op­er­a­tions. For­tu­nately, two new plat­forms that could well meet with these re­quire­ments are on the hori­zon. These are the re­gional air­lin­ers from Em­braer of Brazil es­pe­cially their lat­est prod­uct, the E195-E2 as also the Mit­subishi MRJ from Ja­pan.

While the need for air­lines to op­er­ate on thin long routes is an in­escapable ne­ces­sity, in view of the heavy in­vest­ment re­quired to in­duct a fleet of a new class of air­craft, the lead­ing In­dian car­ri­ers would un­der­stand­ably be re­luc­tant to take on this task re­gard­ing it as an ad­di­tional fi­nan­cial bur­den. The Min­istry of Civil Avi­a­tion (MoCA) would have to con­sider ex­pand­ing the scope of RCS to in­clude op­er­a­tions on thin long routes and pro­vide ad­e­quate fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to off­set losses suf­fered by the In­dian car­ri­ers who opt to op­er­ate on these routes. Al­ter­na­tively, the MoCA may con­sider ap­pro­pri­ate leg­is­la­tion that would man­date In­dian car­ri­ers to take on at least a part if not all, of the op­er­a­tions in this seg­ment for the over­all ben­e­fit of the In­dian air­line in­dus­try and the trav­el­ling pub­lic.

Po­ten­tially a Great Con­trib­u­tor: E195-E2 can be a suit­able air­craft to serve thin long routes in In­dia help­ing in the re­duc­tion of chaos at the hub air­ports

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