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For domestic airlines to expand overseas, Indian middle class must spread its wings

For domestic airlines to expand overseas, Indian middle class must spread its wings

For domestic airlines to expand overseas, Indian middle class must spread its wings
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By Ameya Joshi  Jan 25, 2019 1:46:45 PM IST (Published)

With a large orderbook of planes, airlines must keep finding places where they can serve and serve profitably. And this is where every airline wants to take a leaf out of airlines from ASEAN.

As Spicejet and IndiGo launched flights to Hong Kong from New Delhi and Bengaluru respectively, it heralded into a new era of medium-long haul operations for the low-cost carriers, aided by the newly inducted B737MAX8 and A320/A321 neo aircraft in their respective fleet.

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News quickly followed of IndiGo signing up a codeshare agreement with Turkish Airlines and planning for flights to Istanbul. Airlines in India are seeing steady offers for codeshare or interline partnerships by airlines around the world as everybody tries to have a pie of the world’s fastest growing aviation market.
A solid increase in outbound traffic, burgeoning middle class, growing income and millennial population eager to travel – the recipe is set for increase in travel from India. Traditionally, Indian carriers relied on eyeing a slice of the pie from the labor centric traffic from the gulf, primarily to the southern states of India and holiday and business traffic to South East Asia – primarily Thailand and Singapore. However, the headwinds for growth in Gulf, coupled with increased competition has made airlines look for options beyond the traditional markets.
What Airlines Can Learn From ASEAN
With a large orderbook of planes, airlines must keep finding places where they can serve and serve profitably. And this is where every airline wants to take a leaf out of airlines from ASEAN. Last decade has seen airlines in ASEAN grow at breakneck speed. The low-cost carriers from ASEAN have thrived with tourists pouring in from China, Japan and South Korea. The steady rise of low cost carriers in the region led by Lion Air in Indonesia and AirAsia in Malaysia along with their subsidiaries and VietJet in Vietnam is a result of liberal visa policies and geographic location being within few hours flight-time of major markets be it China, Japan or South Korea. In addition to these, ASEAN has visa free travel pact amongst themselves, fueling demand for travel at short notice without additional expenditure towards visas. Carriers from ASEAN have successfully linked their hubs with traffic from China to Indonesia and India to Australia through their hubs at Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur or Jakarta.
While India has moved to a relatively liberal visa regime in the last five years, India lacks a Bali, Halong Bay or Pattaya to attract tourists from other countries.
The World Heritage sites in peninsular India lack infrastructure to handle direct flights from foreign shores and the golden triangle of Delhi – Agra – Jaipur sees seasonal traffic and concerns of pollution has not helped the cause. Kerala has seen worst floods in decades which has led to a setback leaving Goa as the only destination – which also has seen lackluster growth and is not comparable to destinations in ASEAN. There is limited traffic between the gulf and ASEAN states, limiting options for carriers in India to offer an effective hub linking the west with the east. For Indian carriers – the challenges are multi-fold.
The Henley Passport index ranked India at 79th position, while Japan is ranked first and South Korea joint second with Singapore. Japanese passport holders have visa free / visa on arrival access to 190 countries compared to 61 countries for Indian passport holders. Of these, not many are within the range of a narrow-body aircraft and those which are may not support regular flights. While India is constrained by a not-so-liberal bilateral agreement for frequency or seats, the Indian carriers are now coming of age to utilize their quota, which was traditionally only utilized by the foreign carriers.
The Growing 'Middle Class'
Expansion of carriers from India will have to be based on outbound travel and not inbound. While Indians have been traveling a lot, it is seasonal, and majority of the traffic is still driven by corporates. Time will tell if the flights would be cheap enough to attract passengers who would be willing to let go of the frills like food, beverages and frequent flier miles to opt for the no-frills carrier and pay for the meals.
What will work in favor of India is the middle class, which is growing and is estimated to be over 50 million, a number which is more than the entire population of Malaysia and nearly equal to that of Thailand.
The expansion will have to thus be at places which see maximum outbound traffic from India and not all of them are within the range of the MAX or the NEO. Add to that the tooth and nail fight, which the carriers will put up to fight Indian low-cost carriers, it will not be a cake walk like it has been on the domestic routes to get traffic.
The domestic side of business has seen traffic follow capacity, pulled by low yields. Can the same be replicated on the international side? We will know by end of 2019!
 
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