What is with IndiGo and bad news? While the airline seems to have the
squabble between promoters behind it, the negative publicity this time was because the airline did not load luggage on its flight to Istanbul for a few days.
Istanbul is the hub of IndiGo’s only codeshare partner, Turkish Airlines. So what happened? Extremely heavy headwinds, which make it difficult to carry the full load.
Istanbul has not been the kind of crown IndiGo would have wanted on its head. The airline announced the Turkish code-share and flights in January, with a launch date in March. The first flight was quickly topped up with another from Delhi.
The closure of airspace by Pakistan from February end after airstrikes by the Indian Air Force pushed the airline to postpone the second daily flight and operates a singular flight with a stop at Doha, which at times has a stopover at Ahmedabad on return. The airline’s ambition of connecting 20 destinations beyond Istanbul through code-share also seems to have run into rough weather with only 12 operational right now.
Just when the second flight started and things looked normal, the baggage issue has cropped up. Unlike the airspace closure which is a geopolitical issue and can crop up anytime, winds are a known seasonal issue and it is surprising that the airline did not have a plan in place to tackle this and had to wait for as much negative publicity to
block 20 percent of its seats. Was it a miscalculation or something more?
The jet streams are at its peak in the northern hemisphere in winter months and while they help planes fly faster going eastwards, they create resistance (head-winds) when flying westwards. They are more severe in some year while in others, they are normal.
While planning a route, an airline takes into consideration the seasonal winds. A closer look at schedules between Delhi and Guwahati in winter show that airlines adjust the block times (the time taken by a flight to travel from one point to another and a key factor to measure punctuality) for the return leg during winter, with an additional 20 minutes catered in for the headwinds which flights face on this route.
Fuel calculations account for the fuel which may be needed for diversion, additional holding and taxi-in/out times. With severe headwinds, the airline has few options. To either take a re-fuelling stop, unload baggage and carry full fuel, unload baggage and passengers and carry full fuel. The airline seems to probably chosen to go with all the passengers minus the baggage and not opt for a fuel-stop.
Did the airline not factor in the headwinds effectively? Or does this happen to be one of those years when headwinds are exceptionally strong? Either way, this doesn’t go well for an airline, which once was reputed for its immaculate planning.
While pushing the limit of the narrow-body aircraft is new for Indian carriers, American carriers have faced flak a couple of times in the last 15 years when there were large-scale diversions in 2015 and 2012 with the B757s having to plan an unscheduled re-fuelling stop for flights back to the US from Europe.
Interestingly, data on flight tracking website
Flightradar24 shows Turkish Airlines, which operated the B77W to Delhi, taking lesser time than the IndiGo flight. This is so because IndiGo avoids the Iranian airspace — increasing the duration of the flight — while Turkish flies over Iran. The difference between the block times between these two flights on the same day varies from 30 minutes to up to an hour, putting the IndiGo flight under additional pressure with weight and need for additional fuel. What does it mean for IndiGo?
The airline which has made public its ambitions to fly to London may have to re-look at how it would handle the one-stop operations on narrow-body aircraft with such headwinds. The airline has steadily increased its international presence, shows the data released by the regulator.
At the time of induction and the subsequent analyst call in January this year, the airline had said that it expected to induct a large number of A321neo this year, without specifying the actual number. Nine months since then, the airline only has 5 in the fleet and has 145 more in order.
We are about to enter the peak winter months, when the headwinds may become stronger. This will throw up a challenge for the airline and also for Airbus – which is trying hard to sell its A321XLR aircraft to airlines across the world. It is an open secret that the range which the aircraft manufacturers promise is (mostly) in ideal flying conditions and day to day conditions are anything but ideal.
Will this situation push the airline to opt for the XLR and operate to destinations like Istanbul or will it lead to the airline re-looking at the wide-body options in the market? While both options are a few years away, the airline has to deal with the route immediately with the A321neo operating one flight and the A320neo operating the other.
Typically, an international route takes longer than a domestic route to turn profitable and the continuous challenges which are being thrown at IndiGo for its Istanbul operations could make the going tough for the airline. The airline has to now recover the same trip cost from fewer passengers and may not have the liberty to increase ticket prices.
Istanbul, the airline’s first real venturing out of comfort zone, is located at the crossroads of Asia and Europe, modern and old. IndiGo, like Istanbul, is currently at the crossroads, and its future will depend on how it tackles this and other similar situations – operationally and in terms of passenger experience.
Ameya Joshi is the founder of aviation analysis blog NetworkThoughts. Read Ameya Joshi's columns