Why the FIA’s case against the removal of the 5/20 rule is unjustified

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DEL Arpt

Today, India, for the size that it is, has only four airlines that fly international: Full service carriers (FSCs) Air India and its subsidiaries, and Jet Airways, and Low cost carriers (LCCs) SpiceJet and IndiGo. This is in contrast to the 10 airlines that operate domestic scheduled services in India, today. While Indian carriers flew 81 million domestic passengers in calendar year 2015 (CY2015), Indian carriers flew only 18 million passengers in the same period.

Only two airlines/airline groups operate short, medium and long haul international services: Air India and Jet Airways. Both airlines have diverse fleets: from short haul domestic ATR 72 turboprops to long haul international Boeing 777s. The LCCs in contrast have narrowbody jets that can cater only to short haul international services.

Due to the limitations of fleet and perhaps the lack of commercially attractive international destinations, LCCs IndiGo and SpiceJet deployed only 4.8% and 9.5% of their total flights on international, in CY2015. In contrast, Jet Airways (Including operations from the Jetlite AOP) deployed 22.1%, while Air India (Including Air India Express and Air India Regional (Alliance)) deployed 32.7% of its total flights on international. Air India and Jet Airways together contribute to 84.5% of all international departures by Indian carriers, while IndiGo and SpiceJet contribute to just 8.8% and 6.8% respectively.

This statistic shows IndiGo and SpiceJet are very small players in the international front, serving destinations at neighbouring countries. IndiGo operates only to five international destinations: Kathmandu (Nepal), Muscat (Oman), Singapore (Singapore), Bangkok (Thailand), and Dubai (U.A.E.), while SpiceJet operates only to six international destinations: Bangkok (Thailand), Colombo (Sri Lanka), Dubai (U.A.E), Kabul (Afghanistan), Male (Maldives), and Muscat (Oman).

Air India and Jet Airways started operations before the 5/20 rule was instated in the year 2005. IndiGo and SpiceJet started operations after the 5/20 rule was introduced. The 5/20 rule requires airlines to operate domestic services for a minimum period of five years, after which it can fly international only if the airline has a fleet size of 20 or greater.

Air India Express was the only airline to start immediate international operations (although on an AOP different from Air India) after the 5/20 rule was introduced. The first flight of the airline was an international flight.

Neither IndiGo nor SpiceJet fought the 5/20 rule at that time as the focus of both airlines then, as it is today, is to tap the potential of the domestic market. SpiceJet started international operations in October 2010, while IndiGo commenced international operations in September 2011. Despite both LCCs having started international operations nearly five years ago, when the scale of domestic operations were smaller, both airlines chose not to focus on international operations. (See IndiGo’s fleet induction, here) Both airlines always had the option of inducting larger aircraft to serve destinations beyond the surrounding Asian and Middle East countries. But such is not their business model.

As a result, the only Indian carriers to majorly serve international are Air India and Jet Airways, both of which were not ‘victims’ of the 5/20 rule, whereas IndiGo and SpiceJet, which chose to focus on domestic even though they started international operations five years ago, are ‘victims’ of the 5/20 rule, strongly opposing the removal of the a rule that means nothing, and does not impact either airline..

Go Air

Go Air started operations in the year 2005, but chose not to increase its fleet beyond 19 aircraft. It deferred its 20th aircraft, which was readied by Airbus. As a result, the airline does not fly international, and seems to have no issues remaining a domestic player. Yet, the airline opposes the removal of the 5/20 rule, though it chose not to operate international.

Wasted capacity

In the quarter ending 31st December 2015, a total of 12.6 million international passengers were carried by both Indian and international airlines. Of that number, Indian carriers flew just 4.5 million passengers, or just 36% of the total traffic.

India is underutilising its bilaterals, due to restrictions placed by rules such as the 5/20. For the purpose of this case, and for want of time, we consider only three international destinations: Singapore, Bangkok, and Kuala Lumpur.

Stats India Foreign Airline

As of late February 2016, there are three airlines from Singapore that operate to 13 destinations in India. Singapore Airlines, Tiger Airways and Silk Air together operate 134 flights per week to India, from Singapore, and an equal number of return flights. Together, the airlines deploy 30,517 seats per week between Singapore and India, in each direction, using a variety of aircraft: Airbus A319s, A320s, Boeing 737-800s, Airbus A330s, Boeing 777-200s, 777-300s, and Airbus A380.

In contrast, three Indian airlines (four if you count Air India Express separately) connect Singapore to only four destinations in India. Air India, Air India Express, Jet Airways and IndiGo together operate 63 flights per week between the two countries. Together, the airlines deploy just 13,244 seats per week between Singapore and India, in each direction, using Airbus A320s, Boeing 737-800s, Airbus A330-300s, and Boeing 787-8s.

Thai Airways, Thai AirAsia, and Bangkok Airways operate from Bangkok to eight destinations in India, flying 73 flights and deploying 19,497 seats per week, Using Airbus A320s, Boeing 747s, 777-200s, 777-300s, Airbus A330-300s, and Boeing 787-8s.

In contrast, SpiceJet, IndiGo, Jet Airways and Air India together operate 62 flights, deploying 12,474 seats per week, from four Indian destinations to Bangkok, using Airbus A320s, Boeing 737-800s, 737-900s, and Boeing 787-8s.

From Kuala Lumpur, AirAsia Berhad, AirAsia X, Malindo, and Malaysian Airlines operate 180 flights to 12 Indian destinations, deploying 32,903 seats per week between Malaysia and India, using Airbus A320s, Boeing 737-800s, 737-900s, and Airbus A330-300s.

In contrast, only Air India Express operates to Kuala Lumpur, connecting only Chennai to the Malaysian capital with 4 weekly flights and deploying 744 seats per week.

While not all destinations are commercially viable, there is a huge mismatch between the capacity deployed by foreign carriers, and the capacity deployed by Indian carriers, on the same set of routes. Infact, the superior connectivity offered by foreign carriers is not matched by Indian carriers, leaving a large scope for more Indian carriers to boost the Indian economy while also providing international passengers seamless domestic connectivity.

The 5/20 rule must go if India should see it’s own airlines connect India with the rest of the world.

What the FIA won’t tell you

The Federation of Indian Airlines (FIA), have something against the airlines of the Father of Indian Aviation (FIA), Late JRD Tata. The Tata’s have already done enough to promote connectivity within India: TATA airlines was renamed Air India.

The FIA (Federation) is shaken by the prospects of airlines such as Vistara and AirAsia India. The goal of the FIA is to restrict the operations of such airlines to within India, so that players like the market leader can use its low cost base to lower fares on every route such airlines fly, and bleed the airlines dry. Starting with the smallest and the least capitalised airlines, airlines will knock off the Indian scene, one by one, leaving only a few to operate in India, with the market player enjoying a huge monopoly in setting fares. At that point in time, India will suffer, with neither good international connectivity, nor with strong domestic competition nor worthy alternatives.

While the FIA blames consultancy firm KPMG of auditing Singapore Airlines and consulting for the government, it remains silent on consultancy firm CAPA.

CAPA India, in its Aviation Outlook 2016, stated, “Despite repeated statements by the Minister that there is no logic to the 5/20 rule and that it should be abolished, the discriminatory regulation still remains in place”.

Guess which consultancy firm’s services was sought for IndiGo’s Red Herring Prospectus? CAPA India.

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2 thoughts on “Why the FIA’s case against the removal of the 5/20 rule is unjustified”

  1. Great post. Summed up the situation really well, which is something beyond the mainstream news media.
    It’s interesting how some of the FIA members say ‘Vistara should serve India and Indians first’ as a right-of-passage to be allowed to fly internationally. This conveniently overlooks the fact that Vistara would in fact be serving the country and its citizens by operating international flights as well (the increased competition would bring down fares, and the revenues would be remitted to an Indian company in India instead of foreign ones). The argument that these new airlines are intended as feeders to their ‘foreign parents’ is also incorrect but convenient for the FIA to say. I think the whole logic behind SIA wanting to partner with Tata is that recognize they are close to saturation and deep maturity in their home market, and their true avenue of long term growth is a new hub (literally developing a completely greenfield opportunity). Vistara I think is the only airline with the ambition of becoming a true competitor to the likes of global biggies like Emirates, Cathay, Lufthansa, British, etc, with the scope of creating a hub (multiple hubs in fact) in India for passenger transiting. Why shouldn’t a passenger from London to Bangkok fly an Indian airline and connect through Delhi, versus connecting through the UAE or Frankfurt or Istanbul. What’s more, that travel plays an essential role in economic growth as well, with passengers opting for layover holidays, plus increasing awareness and visibility about the destination for holidays and business for connecting passengers. Infact, Singapore is literally only a logical hub for flights onward to Indonesia and Australia/New Zealand. It’s not even practical for East Asia or the US West Coast. It’s Jet Airways that’s the true feeder airlines, driving passengers to Etihad connections to Europe, Africa and the Americas.
    Not surprised the FIA is shaky about true competition. Like you mentioned, they know what Tata achieved with Air India decades ago, before the government mismanaged it. It’s definitely not the Indian customers they have at heart with their lobbying, it’s very much themselves.
    I’m surprised with their refrain of ‘we suffered through 5/20 and it’s only fair that you do too’. No where in the world, including India (for all other industries), is a backward/senseless legislation kept in place because it hurt other in the past. In fact, it would bring business and trade to a halt if changes weren’t made over time in context of the situation. For example, to curb the rise of the dollar, which was accentuated by the import of gold, the government placed an import duty on the metal to reduce demand as an active step in the interest of the nation. Did it create a situation that benefited some and hurt others? Ofcourse, but it was the right decision. And I think the government faces a similar question today about creating a progressive legislation for the aviation industry, which can play a vital role in boosting trade and the economy.
    I do agree that Route Dispersal Guidelines should be done away with as well. If anything, an incentive/support scheme should be offered for routes the government wants to support, and private players are welcome to choose whether they want to fly those routes and avail the incentives or not.

  2. atul jain said:

    The airlines opposing the 5/20 rule should be ashamed of themselves. For extremely selfish reasons they don’t mind punching and restricting the indian economy inspite of making profits from the same country. They are collecting bad karma which will return to haunt them in the not do distant future.

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