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In the light of Ajay Singh taking over SpiceJet, media reports and general speculation had pointed that the revival plan of Ajay’s ‘include culling the 15 Bombardier Q400 regional aircraft from the airline’s fleet’. On the contrary, The Flying Engineer has learnt that SpiceJet’s Q400s are here to stay.

While the industry in general is led to believe that a single fleet strategy is best suited for a low cost carrier, based on the success of Southwest, Ryanair, AirAsia, and IndiGo, The Flying Engineer has firmly believed in a dual fleet strategy to effectively penetrate the Indian market. This is based on the Indian market which falls into three broad categories:

  1. Thick, long and short routes – markets which are mature and overcrowded, such as Bangalore- Delhi (long), and Bangalore -Goa (short).
  2. Thin, long and short routes – markets which are evolving (underserved, and unserved), such as Bangalore – Chandigarh, Bangalore- Vishakapatnam.
  3. Thinner, short routes – markets which will not mature easily – such as Vijayawada- Hyderabad, Bangalore-Belgaum.

The reason for the last market to not mature easily is the fairly good rail and road connectivity that is present between such city pairs. Yet, there is a segment (albeit small) of travellers who will pay for the time and convenience of air travel, which reduces an overnight journey to around an hour or so. Further, at many such destinations, the runways haven’t been upgraded to allow bigger jets to land, making them fit almost exclusively for turboprop operations with ATR72 (typ. 72 seats) and Q400 (typ. 78 seats). Since most travellers on this segment are those who value time and convenience, and because there is insufficient competition, an airline like SpiceJet enjoys good pricing power.

To support this, SpiceJet, in Q2 FY’15, realised a passenger-only RASK (excludes ancillary revenues) of INR 2.74/ASK, while the Q400s delivered INR 4.99/ASK. This passenger only RASK of the Q400 was higher than the average RASK (including ancillary revenues) of INR 3.26/ASK.

In Q2, the Q400 flew only 8.13% of the airline’s total deployed capacity, yet contributed to nearly 14% of the airline’s total passenger revenue. Interestingly however, the Q400 made up 30% of the airline’s fleet in Q2, but had only 14% of the airline’s total aircraft seats.

What worked the most against the Q400 was the maintenance costs, which The Flying Engineer has been led to believe is a problem of the past, when maintenance facilities were not available in the sub-continent. Perhaps the selection of the aircraft wasn’t right, but the dual fleet concept wasn’t wrong.

Should SpiceJet bounce back with the infusion of funds, the airline may have to redo the Q400 network a bit and play the aircraft to its strength, better feeding into the mainline network with traffic from Tier III routes. This is one of the ways a smaller player in the market can hope to survive through differentiation, and monopoly / duopoly, especially when established routes are crowded with very low margins.

The days of a dual fleet jet – a mainline narrow body complimented by a regional jet, are not far off, either.