In the past one year, IndiGo and SpiceJet, dominant players on the Indian skies, have pressed ahead with their international ambitions. But not everything has gone according to plan.
One such focus city was Hong Kong, where SpiceJet launched from New Delhi and IndiGo followed from Bengaluru. The airlines added flights from Mumbai and Kolkata respectively. But these flights now stand withdrawn or suspended.
IndiGo formally communicated the withdrawal of Kolkata–Hong Kong while SpiceJet has not operated the flights from Mumbai for a while and flights are open for sale intermittently. The pullout is not purely market dynamics; it is due to the fall of demand owing to protests in Hong Kong which has impacted the business.
IndiGo, which had announced double daily flights to Istanbul, had to curtail the schedule to operate just one. This flight was routed via Doha but later was forced to a re-fuelling stop both ways as neighbouring Pakistan shut its airspace following an airstrike on terrorist camps at Balakot by the Indian Air Force. During this period, SpiceJet had to cancel its operations to Kabul, Afghanistan as it would have entailed an over five-hour flight making it economically unviable.
As both the airlines expand, they are facing unlikely hurdles – rarely seen on the domestic front. First it was the blasts in Colombo impacting tourism and business. Then came protests in Hong Kong turning violent. And finally closure of the Pakistan airspace. All these unexpected events have forced these airlines to change their plans.
Take IndiGo. The airline operationalised its first codeshare with Turkish Airlines. While all the 20 points it intended to offer are not yet operationalised, there already was a clamour on social media to shun Turkey as a destination after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey, extended support to Pakistan over Kashmir. While IndiGo continues to operate all its scheduled services to Turkey, the airline has curtailed frequencies to Kuala Lumpur from Chennai.
Soon after Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also extended his support to Pakistan over the Kashmir issue. While the curtailment of frequency is totally unrelated to the statements made by the Malaysian prime minister, it puts in focus how international is not as profitable and easy as it is made out to be. Its latest codeshare is with Qatar Airlines – which has been under a blockade for the last two years from most of its neighbours.
There remains a constant fear of closure of airspace by Pakistan among all airlines. While the impact will be maximum on the widebody operations of Air India, which has a significant presence in Europe, it will also curtail heavily, plans of IndiGo and SpiceJet, especially from New Delhi.
The last few years have seen growing traffic from India to central Asia viz Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. The carriers of both these countries have added flights and points in India as they try to help grow tourism and get a slice of the India -to-EU traffic. These routes are via Gulf or non-stop in the case of Air India and other European carriers. IndiGo has been exploring a one-stop strategy to Europe for the past few years and any point it chooses mid-way will need flying over Pakistan — at least from New Delhi.
Advantage South East Asia or South India?
The Indian government has been pushing for a “Look East” policy for a while and a major part of that strategy has been to increase air connectivity. However, not many points in South East Asia warrant direct flights.
India remains unconnected to Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and Indonesia. IndiGo entered Vietnam recently from Kolkata and not Delhi – which is the largest market. IndiGo has also ventured into China.
Both Vietnam and China will take time to stabilise. These are early days to figure out how the airline performs in the long run.
Will the geopolitical tensions see airlines focus on South East Asia or focus on South India? There remains a market from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai – individually not as big as New Delhi but collectively much larger. While each of these airports have their own constraints, New Delhi isn’t one without constraints!
Will SpiceJet or IndiGo look at moving their international hubs or future prime destinations and flights to Mumbai? IndiGo had chosen Bengaluru over others for its flight to Hong Kong.
While Delhi and Mumbai have considerable capacity in the market, the other metros have relatively lesser seats from foreign carriers giving a slight edge to Indian carriers to get hold of the market where passengers are likely to let go of the full-service carrier for a low-cost carrier for either cost or convenience.
Such a move will propel the airports in the South to higher destinations being served and an increase in passengers. Remember what happened when GoAir launched flights to Phuket, which was followed by IndiGo doing the same.
A hub at Bengaluru or Mumbai will also help one-stop flights to Europe via an intermediate point without passing through the Pakistani airspace! However, that also means that IndiGo will have to sort its engine issue at the earliest since the shortest and most direct routings will need ETOPS (Extended-range Twin-engine Operational Performance Standards) certification in place – something which is pending due to the recurring issues with the Geared Turbo Fan Pratt & Whitney engines.
Whichever way airlines choose to look at, one thing is clear – International is not as easy as it appears to be and is very different than domestic!
Ameya Joshi is the founder of aviation analysis blog NetworkThoughts.
First Published: IST