IndiGo, India’s largest airline by passengers carried, will continue to add a new aircraft every week to its existing fleet until "eternity", said airline officials, brushing off reports that it struggled to find skilled pilots to keep pace with its aggressive, fast growth as "incorrect".
IndiGo said earlier this month that it will cancel dozens of flights every day over the next two months. Though the airline cited the reason for cancellation as bad weather and operations adjustments, several media reports pointed to a severe shortage of skilled pilots as the real reason.
But IndiGo officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity would have none of it. Instead, they said IndiGo will stay on course with its aggressive fleet expansion in India.
They referred to the data that IndiGo cites to justify the fleet expansion in the first place: under penetration of air connectivity to smaller cities and towns within India; inadequate connections not just between metros and smaller towns but also the near absence of connections between two or more small towns; the inability of other modes of transport (buses, trains) to help build infrastructure and boost connectivity in a fast-growing major economy. These apart, India has the lowest seat per capita among major aviation markets including the USA, China, Malaysia and Thailand, according to them.
A Question Of How
But how will IndiGo be able to handle this massive expansion in capacity? There is little doubt that the airline is up against crew shortages and the consequent flight cancellations and delays. The airline was forced to cancel almost 70 flights daily earlier this month and has now cancelled 30 daily flights till at least March.
Officials say manpower issues will be sorted out soon. One airline official said hiring of cabin and cockpit crew was suspended for some time when the airline was thought to have sufficient numbers earlier. The logic then was to avoid keeping expensive, extra cockpit crew on the rolls and escalate costs.
Now, as capacity growth has spiked and will continue unabated, the hiring process will again gain impetus, the person said.
Another official said IndiGo still has an average 6.65 pilot pairs per aircraft, which is in excess of global benchmarks at about 5 per aircraft. This official said it has about 3,000 pilots (commanders and first officers) on its rolls and will add another 1,000 junior first officers and commanders within a year through a combination of programmes.
A former senior pilot pointed out that IndiGo's current manpower woes stem from its managerial structure. While other airlines do flight rostering via the flight operations department, IndiGo does so under what is called Operations Command Centre, which is not a part of flight operations. This simply means there is no daily check on pilot availability before rostering happens, leading to some chaos.
Also, not all pilots on the rolls of an airline are always available to operate a flight due to specified rest norms and other functional parameters. As per DGCA norms, a pilot can fly for only 1000 hours a year. So if pilots rostered for more number of hours per day initially in a year, their hours get exhausted quickly and they become unavailable for the latter part of the year.
An added complexity is the enhanced training period for pilots — it has now almost doubled, making it that much more difficult to get cockpit crew which is ready to operate a flight. So not only are enough pilots not available with Indigo airline as it expands, but the rostering of available pilots is also perhaps not being done in an efficient manner.
The severe crew shortage has been taking a toll on IndiGo's operations. IndiGo reported the third worst on-time performance in January this year at four of India's busiest airports at just 64 percent, according to the latest data published aviation regulator DGCA.
In other words, it could not get every third flight on its network on time from these four airports. For an airline which keeps on-time performance as its loudest call, this must have hurt. The cancellation rate in January was also just below habitual offender Air India. So how will an airline already crippled by crew issues manage as it adds nearly 50 additional aircraft in the coming 12 months, this remains to be seen.
The former senior pilot quoted above said on an average, three commanders are needed per aircraft per day. So with IndiGo's planned capacity addition, more than 750 commanders should be available each day to operate the flights on domestic and international routes of IndiGo.
Typically, airlines keep a pool of cabin crew for a little more than their current or expected fleet strength. And when falling short, they resort to hiring expensive expat pilots.
Meanwhile, in the next fiscal year alone, beginning April 2019, the airline will augment capacity by 25-30 percent or by more than a fifth, officials say. Where will all the new incoming planes be deployed?
Primarily in creating new routes between smaller cities within the country and in augmenting international operations. This may sound a bit contrarian — an airline focusing on smaller, tier-I and tier-II Indian towns and cities while also eyeing virgin international destinations with its single-aisle fleet. But then IndiGo is nothing if not contrarian.
IndiGo's massive and continued expansion needs some context. Roughly four in 10 domestic fliers take an IndiGo flight daily somewhere within the country. The airline has been one of the only consistently profitable airlines for years in a market where losses are par for course. It has a fleet of over 200 aircraft already and connects more than 1,500 city pairs with either direct or one-stop service.
Hungry As Ever
But capacity and crew mismatch have not dimmed IndiGo's appetite for further capacity addition. Officials say by March next year, even as connections within India to its smaller towns and cities will be enhanced, so will overseas connectivity.
And international operations will account for more than a fifth of the airline's capacity by then from about 17-18 percent now. Almost half the new fleet that is expected to come in will be used to fly to new overseas destinations, according to the airline officials.
So for example, in its plan to fly to London with one stop in between, IndiGo is studying whether that stop would be at Baku or Tblisi. In its quest to offer flights to China, it is examining five destinations in that country but will eventually pick two cities.
IndiGo will be starting flights to China, Vietnam, Myanmar, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries between May and September this year. It will also be adding frequencies to existing routes.
As of now, almost a fourth of IndiGo's capacity is deployed on metro-to-metro flights (like Mumbai-Delhi or Chennai-Bangalore) while almost half is deployed on the metro to tier-I cities. Now, it wants to offer connections between tie I and tier II cities, getting Silchar, Pondicherry, Gaya etc on the aviation map.
The strategy for offering connections to smaller cities is the same one it follows on high-density routes. So for example when IndiGo decides to fly to Raipur, it offers four flights a day between Raipur and Delhi, three a day between Kolkata and Raipur, two daily connections to Mumbai and five between Raipur and Hyderabad.
What IndiGo is trying to do is not just offer connections to a small city, it also wants to offer high frequency, multiple-times-a-day service from that city to major metros. Jodhpur, another city which is in line for similar connectivity, will have multiple flights a day to and from Delhi, Lucknow, Kolkata, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
How likely is IndiGo to succeed with its strategy of deploying massive capacity and offering multiple daily connections within India will depend not just on macro economic factors and competitive forces but also on its ability to have adequate manpower to run such ambitious operations.
Sindhu Bhattacharya is a journalist based in Delhi who writes on a range of topics in business and economy.