Till date, regional airlines in India have been looked upon in poor light, largely because of the past and the present. No regional airline in India has survived long, collapsing under the pressures of mismanagement and poor planning. Even today, the way in which regional airlines are both managed and run is disappointing.
The ministry’s proposal for Scheduled Commuter Airlines (SCAs), and the associated benefits, are huge. For one, SCAs will be able to enter into code shares with other airlines. This will be the starting point for capacity purchase agreements (CPAs) as seen in the US of A where mainline airlines contract commuter or regional airlines to offer last airport connectivity. It turns into a win-win for both mainline and the regional or commuter airline.
Yet, the paid up capital requirement, as stipulated by the ministry, reduces entry barriers. This will allow the “not-so-good” to enter the business, mismanage the business, ultimately leading to a collapse, non-payment of salaries, and the like. So how much does an airline require to run?
It depends on many factors. We look into market lease rates of popular aircraft, and the amount of money the airline is going to lose over a period of 2 years. The projections are based on statistical data derived from many airlines, and will make you appreciate how much an airline really needs. We also expand the aircraft set to include other, smaller, in production turboprops.
SpiceJet, which is the only low cost/fare airline in India to operate with more than one type of fleet, including Boeing 737-800s, Boeing 737-900s, Bombardier Q400 turboprops, today brought in more fleet diversity through the induction of a wet-leased Airbus A320.
The airline had wet-leased two Airbus A319s in the recent past, one of which (LZ-AOA) is still flying with SpiceJet. The A319 that is still flying for SpiceJet is from BHair (Balkan Holidays), and the Airbus A320 inducted today is also from the same operator. This is perhaps a symbol of confidence in operators in wet-leasing airplanes to SpiceJet, perhaps indicative of a more stable financial situation that allows for on-time payments. Boeing 737 wet leased aircraft that earlier flew for SpiceJet in the summer peak season have also returned for another peak-season term.
The Airbus A320 MSN 2863, registered LZ-BHH, previously flew for IndiGo as VT-INB. VT-INB was the second Airbus A320 to be inducted into IndiGo, and exited the fleet in 2012. Sale-Leaseback contracts at IndiGo were earlier for a period of 6 years, which has since been extended after 16 airplanes, following a sooner-than-needed capacity expansion after the collapse of Kingfisher in 2012.
With two Boeing 737-800s dry leased by SpiceJet in scheduled maintenance, the airline today has an active fleet of 23 mainline jets (Boeing 737-800s, Boeing 737-900s, Airbus A319, Airbus A320) and 13 Bombardier Q400s.
Air Costa, India’s first regional jet airline, turns 2 tomorrow (15th October 2015). The airline, which is the second airline in India after the now defunct Paramount Airways to operate the Embraer E170s, is terminating lease on the aircraft, making Air Costa perhaps the last Indian operator to employ the 70-80 seat regional jet.
The airline’s two Embraer E170s, registered VT-LSR & VT-LNR, were the first two airplanes for the airline, leased from Embraer’s ECC leasing. The aircraft earlier flew for Gulf Air, which had fitted the cabin with 67 seats : 7 business and 60 economy. The aircraft can pack in a maximum of 78 seats in a single class configuration.
The airline has cancelled up to 4 flights owing to one of the two E170s (VT-LSR) being returned in November. As of today, out of the 32 daily flights the airline used to operate to 9 destinations, it presently operates 25-26 flights. This is further expected to go down to around 15 – 16 flights per day in the next 10 days. When two new Embraer E190s are inducted, the airline will resume the flights previously operated by the E170s starting 1st Dec 2015.
Due to this, Air Costa does not seem to sell for, and operate certain E170 sectors between 25th Oct and 30th Nov (as per the website), till these are operated by the replacement aircraft, an Embraer E190, 1st Dec onwards. These sectors are captured in the table on the left. The airline has opened sales for these sectors for travel December 1st onward.
The airline does not seem to sell (indefinitely, as per the website) the E170 sectors operated by the other aircraft. These include:
Vijayawada <> Hyderabad
Vijayawada <> Chennai
Vijayawada <> Vishakapatnam
Chennai <> Hyderabad (Daily)
Frequencies on routes such as Bengaluru<>Vijayawada has halved.
Air Costa’s two other aircraft – Embraer E190s registered VT-LBR & VT-LVR, leased from GECAS, shall remain in the fleet, one of which would be going for a scheduled maintenance in mid-November. The Embraer E190 is a money maker for the airline, and Air Costa is using the asset to its strength. The 2 E170s will be replaced with 2 E190s in the next 3 months.
Based on studies by The Flying Engineer, small capacity regional jets of less than 100 seats have limited relevance in the Indian market, today. A great way to capture the market is to complement the Airbus A320 / Boeing 737s (180 seat airplanes) with an aircraft of nearly 50% – 60% capacity, making the Embraer E190 with 114 seats (maximum) an ideal airplane for routes with insufficient demand for a 180 seat airplane.
Air Costa will be able to connect Tier II and Tier III cities across the country with any Tier I city once its air operator permit (AOP) is converted from a scheduled southern regional airline to a scheduled (pan-India) airline operator permit. This change of AOP is expected to happen soon. However, the airline’s network will continue to be focused on the regional segment, but at a pan-India level.
With the airline demerging from other projects of the parent company, Air Costa is ready to attract external investments into the airline. It plans to induct 4 aircraft every year, from 2016. By 2018, the airline plans to have a minimum fleet of 12 aircraft and fly to 18 stations.
Air Costa presently operates to 9 destinations. A major network change is expected in light of the change in fleet. Bhubaneswar, Pune, Guwahati, Indore, Patna and Bhopal are expected to be added to the network when the fleet size touches 8.
Besides all the visible innovations that SpiceJet is grabbing the headlines for, the airline is doing certain other things quite differently.
Any airline will like to make the most of a peak season by increasing flights, and providing increased connectivity and flight options. There are two ways to do this : by growing the fleet or by flying the airplanes harder. SpiceJet is doing both.
The airline does not yet seem to be ready to lease more airplanes the conventional way. It instead is wet leasing airplanes from eastern European airlines, which have capacity to spare. In the month of October, the airline will be inducting 6 Boeing 737s on a wet lease (ACMI lease) basis – which means the airline will not have to bother about flight crew, cabin crew, maintenance and insurance. Wet leases can turn out to be more expensive than a dry lease with in house crew, maintenance and insurance, but it offers SpiceJet one big advantage – to modulate its capacity to suit seasonal demand.
SpiceJet today is the only airline in India to be actively wet-leasing airplanes to bridge capacity shortfalls.
The airline presently has one Airbus A319 wet leased, and 2 of the 6 wet leased Boeing 737 NGs to be inducted this month have arrived – OK-TVX and OK-TSF. OK-TVX flew for SpiceJet during the summer peak season, along with two other Boeing 737-800s. The two 737s arrived on 8th October, 2015.
The airline’s remaining Boeing fleet is all dry leased, and the Q400s are owned. Of the 20 Boeing 737s, 16 are Boeing 737-800s and 4 are Boeing 737-900s. Before the 2 wet leased airplanes arrived, one Boeing 737-900 was undergoing heavy scheduled maintenance, ‘C’ checks. After the two leased airplanes arrived, a Boeing 737-800 went into scheduled maintenance. In total, the active narrow body mainline jet fleet as of today is comprised of 15 dry-leased Boeing 737-800s, 3 dry-leased Boeing 737-900s, 2 wet leased Boeing 737-800s and 1 wet leased Airbus A319, in addition to 14 Bombardier Q400 turboprops of which 13 are active. The total active fleet is 34 airplanes strong, which is expected to rise to around 40 during November-December. The peak season starts in a week’s time.
To aggressively take on the domestic and international markets despite a small fleet of airplanes, SpiceJet has been pushing its Boeing 737s to fly much harder than usual. Some of the Boeing 737s operate 19:30hrs, 17:50 and 16:35 hrs. These patterns flown by the 737s witness the airplanes flying hard during the day, and operate long international sectors at night/early morning.
Of the LCCs in India, only two fly international – SpiceJet and IndiGo. IndiGo, which also operates late night / early morning international flights, operates its airplanes only upto 17:45hrs of utilisation, on a pattern that involves a late night Chennai-Singapore return flight. One of the airline’s patterns is all-international with just 4 flights, MAA-DXB-TRV-DXB-MAA, which uses the airplane for 17:35hrs. Both these patterns, however, are not as heavy in utilisation as SpiceJet’s.
While SpiceJet pushing its airplanes to fly harder increases revenue potential and dilutes costs, it also results in a higher chance of cascading network delays in case one flight gets significantly delayed. Having significant gaps between patterns reduces the chances of the delays of one day from cascading into the second day.
On the Q400 front, the airline pushes certain Q400s to operate upto 13:15hrs per day, with an average, network-wide utilisation of around 11:30hrs. This is good for a turboprop that operates mostly domestic. SpiceJet’s Q400 turboprops are the only turboprops in India that fly scheduled international services.
SpiceJet’s Boeing 737-800 MSN 37366 earlier registered as VT-SGU had entered storage in the July of 2014. The aircraft, leased from BBAM, was recently painted in the colors of Pegasus Airlines, and will soon be flown off from Hyderabad Shamshabad to operate for the Turkish airline.
A very significant number of SpiceJet’s Boeing 737s were leased from BBAM, most of which have been returned to the lessor. BBAM, which began as Babcock & Brown Aircraft Management remains the largest lessor for SpiceJet, with five aircraft – VT SGG/SGH/SGV & SGQ – all four Boeing 737-800s, and VT-SPU – a Boeing 737-900.
Recent media reports pointed to BBAM taking SpiceJet to court for the de-registration of the five 737s. The airline issued a statement on 25th March ststing, “Discussions have been ongoing with the lessors for an amicable settlement.SpiceJetfully expects the matter will be resolved shortly and positively with the lessors, and there will be no grounding of aircraft or disruption of operations.”
All five BBAM aircraft are still operating flights for the airline.
SpiceJet today flies an active fleet of 17 Boeing 737s, which includes only one 737-900 leased from BBAM. The other lessors are Air Lease Corporation (ALC), Ansett Worldwide Aviation Services (AWAS), Bank of China Aviation (BOC), Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), and Mitsubishi Corporation Aviation Partners (MCAP).
SpiceJet owns all its fifteen Bombardier Q400s.
GE Capital Aviation Services (GECAS), another prominent lessor, had towards the end 2014 pulled out its five Boeing 737s, four of which are parked at Seletar Airport, Singapore- VT-SZE/F/G/H, all of which have been de-registered.
As per the airline’s statement on the 20th of March, 2015, “SpiceJet is also in the process of adding more aircraft to the fleet and expects to add 8-9 Boeings starting in April to take the active Boeing fleet to 25-26 aircraft in the summer, in addition to the 15 Bombardier Q400 aircraft that are owned by SpiceJet. SpiceJet will continue to add more aircraft in the second half of the year to take the Boeing fleet up to 34-35 aircraft by the end of the year.”
It is believed that some of the 737s to come will be wet leased.
It has been learnt that IndiGo may be flying TigerAir’s Airbus A320 aircraft on a ‘short term lease’.
The move gains prominence in the light of four developments: IndiGo’s original 100 airplane order will be completed in the December of 2014, new competition from TATA-SIA and AirAsia India has made IndiGo upward revise its expansion plans, IndiGo has now extended the lease of its airplanes to 10 years from the previously financially viable six years, and Tigerair Mandala ceased operations on 1st July 2014.
IndiGo had ordered 100 Airbus A320 aircraft in the June of 2005. With the 100 airplane order completing in the December of 2014, the 180 airplane order placed in June 2011 kicks in, which comprises 150 A320 new engine option (NEO) and 30 A320 classic engine option (CEO).
With IndiGo inducting 19 A320s in 2012 and 17 A320s in 2013, the 30 aircraft which are part of the new order may be inducted into the fleet by the third quarter of the calendar year 2016, perfectly timed to coincide with the A320 NEOs for the airline. Initial production rate of the A320NEOs will be low as it will share the line with the existing A320s. The A320NEO’s expected entry into service (EIS) is early 2016.
While this was the plan for IndiGo, it seems like the competition has messed them up. To retain market share and maintain an edge, the airline is possibly looking to scale up operations, considering the new routes that are being added, and the fact that the airline is trying to keep its airplanes in its fleet longer, through a lease extension.
To support its expansion plans, IndiGo has been inducting at least one aircraft every month, with as many as four in a month. However (and surprisingly), for unclear reasons, the airline has not inducted any aircraft in the months of May and June. VT-IAP, the yet to be delivered A320, may likely be inducted in August. This will take the fleet size to 79 aircraft, and will be the 95th aircraft from the 100 airplane order., leaving five airplanes to be delivered across the five months August-December.
On July 1st, 2014, Indonesia’s Tigerair Mandala ceased operations. This is the second time ‘Mandala‘ as an airline has ceased operations, and this time it was after Citilink and AirAsia refused to acquire the airline. This has placed nine Airbus A320 aircraft from the airline into storage at Kuala Lumpur, which means nine A320s are available for grabs. The Flying Engineer believes that some of these A320s may make their way to IndiGo under a ‘short term lease’.
Inducting Tigerair Mandala’s A320s into the fleet won’t be an engineering hassle for the airline as these aircraft are also powered by the IAEV2527-A5 engines: the same ones that power the A320s at IndiGo. The cabins are laid out in a dense economy configuration of 180 seats, similar to IndiGo’s. None of the aircraft have the fuel saving ‘sharklets‘.
While this may seem like IndiGo’s knee-jerk reaction to opportunities and market dynamics and competition, it must also be noted that such measures are adding a degree of ‘stickiness’ to IndiGo’s otherwise well planned operations. The airline’s older aircraft, especially some above the age of six years, are starting to appear dirty on the outside-the fuselages of those airplanes are no longer fully white. IndiGo had in the past taken care to ensure its airplanes were clean.
If the Tigerair lease materialises, then it will be the first time in IndiGo’s history that the airline will operate aircraft previously used by another airline, and for the first time will fly airplanes that were previously used.