06 April 2020
Global aviation is in the midst of a crisis for which the industry is fast running out of adjectives
Based on the number of daily flights tracked by Flightradar24, global aviation activity has declined by 66.8% over the last month. In India the decline in aircraft movements has been even more dramatic, with the government having suspended all scheduled domestic and international flights until 15-Apr-2020, a date which may be further extended. With the exception of a handful of cargo and repatriation charter flights, India’s skies are largely empty.
What happens once these restrictions are lifted is as yet difficult to assess. The trajectory of the resumption of operations will be driven by the demand for travel, which will have clearly been damaged by the severe human and economic costs that COVID-19 is inflicting. Given the tremendous uncertainty around the duration of restrictions, projecting how long it will take the economy to normalise is fraught with risks.
However, based on our understanding of the aviation system in India, and our assessment of the situation as of today, we currently expect the following outlook.
The Indian aviation sector is likely to shrink significantly, even if some of the vulnerable airlines manage to survive. CAPA India estimates that there could be 200-250 surplus aircraft for the next 6-12 months.
- From a point of complete suspension of travel, recovery is likely to be slow. Demand will be suppressed due to economic dislocation; slow or even negative GDP growth; broken supply chains; low consumer confidence; and concerns about lingering outbreaks of COVID-19, especially if travel insurance companies refuse to provide cover for associated medical expenses or travel disruption costs.
- For India to return to a pre-COVID operational fleet of 650 aircraft is likely to take up to 12 months from the time that restrictions are lifted, and this may be conservative. It assumes that 1QFY2021 will be almost written-off, with traffic limping back during the weak second quarter, followed by a gradual trajectory towards normality during the second half of the financial year.
- Projections are further complicated by the fact that restrictions are unlikely to be lifted in totality overnight. Instead, this process is expected to occur in a staggered manner and may not follow a straight line, particularly when it comes to international travel. For example, China, Hong Kong and Singapore have all re-imposed certain travel restrictions after an initial relaxation resulted in an acceleration of new cases, mostly imported by overseas arrivals.
- For industry operators, the suspension of services, although dramatic, was in some senses relatively simple. It was possible to bring activity to a halt overnight. In contrast, the resumption of operations is far more complex, given that the industry will likely have to re-start in an environment in which there will be limited visibility on the outlook for demand.
- This is especially true in a market such as India which has a very late booking profile. On top of which, forward bookings for domestic travel in May, June and July are currently down 80% year-on-year, and will remain significantly constrained for at least the next 4-6 weeks. This will further impact the more vulnerable carriers that are dependent upon cash generated from advance sales.
- When services resume, airlines will have to publish a schedule, which will require decisions to be made with respect to which routes to launch first and with what level of capacity, without knowing until much closer to the date of departure whether demand actually exists. Some carriers may decide to operate very much a skeleton network only, on the basis that it may be better to keep aircraft grounded to conserve cash, until there is greater clarity on how the demand for travel is recovering.
- In addition, it is as yet unknown whether there will be additional operational considerations to be taken into account when services resume e.g. passenger concerns or even regulatory provisions related to social distancing at the airport and onboard; increased turnaround times to enable thorough cabin cleansing after each flight; limitations on inflight service; airport health checks as well as changes to security screening and immigration procedures, which may lengthen processing time. Aside from increasing costs, the impact on the passenger experience may deter some travellers.
- International travel will be even more complex because it is highly unlikely that there will be a coordinated lifting of restrictions. Instead, passengers are likely to be faced with continually changing regulations on entry and transit conditions for passengers depending upon their nationality and recent travel history, often introduced with no advance notice in response to new local outbreaks of COVID-19. The implementation of travel bans in recent weeks are decisions that that most governments would have deliberated on, given the unprecedented nature of such actions. But now that travel bans have become globally accepted as a legitimate response to a health pandemic, they would likely be re-introduced without hesitation should they be required in future.
- The combination of COVID-related travel restrictions and an economic downturn is likely to result in 1QFY2021 being a virtual washout for the Indian industry. The second quarter is historically the weakest period for demand and hence airlines are only likely to limp back into recovery. As a result, the majority of the fleet is likely to be surplus to requirement during the first half of the financial year.
- A gradual path towards normality could be expected during Q3 and Q4. CAPA India estimates that Indian carriers will require a domestic fleet of around 300-325 aircraft from Oct-2020 onwards, and an international fleet of 100-125 aircraft. The total fleet size of 400-450 aircraft would still mean that the current fleet of 650 represents a surplus of 200-250 aircraft for a period of 6-12 months. This may even be optimistic. All of the projections in this report assume that travel restrictions are mostly lifted by the end of the first quarter. If lockdown conditions are extended, then these estimates would be subject to revision.
- Virtually all market segments are likely to see a very slow recovery. VFR traffic would normally be the first to pick-up as friends and families seek to re-unite after months of separation. However, health concerns associated with travel may limit this segment, especially senior citizens. Discretionary international leisure travel may take even longer as this will be impacted by the weak economy. Small and medium businesses will be particularly badly affected by the COVID-19 restrictions and many will close. And larger companies may take time to assess the impact on their operations which could see revisions to their near-term business plans. Furthermore, with companies becoming more comfortable using technology to communicate during lockdown, this may in the future lead to the need for some travel being re-assessed. Even labour traffic, mostly to the Gulf, may see downward pressure.
- Domestic traffic is expected to decline from an estimated 140 million in FY2020 to around 80-90 million in FY2021. International traffic is expected to fall from approximately 70 million in FY2020 to 35-40 million in FY2021, and possibly less. These are CAPA India’s initial estimates and will be continually revised.
- To reflect the new demand environment, airlines will need to develop an interim business plan for the next 12-18 months to stabilise their operations and ride through the recovery period, until some semblance of pre-COVID normality returns.
- Starting from the end of Apr-2020, Indian carriers are initially expected to seek to return up to 100 aircraft to lessors, especially older equipment and those that may be closer to the expiry of their terms. The number of returned aircraft will continue to increase significantly up until Sep-2020, possibly reaching 200-250, or even higher. Since aircraft lessors will have limited customers to whom they can remarket returned aircraft, they may be willing to negotiate temporary rental holidays. Although, this may not be applicable for carriers with a high credit risk rating with the prospect for further deterioration. Likewise, airlines that are offered concessions by lessors will need to take a strategic call on whether they require all of their aircraft. The holding costs of maintaining a larger fleet may outweigh the concession available.
- More than 200 aircraft that are scheduled for delivery over the next couple of years (including 56 MAX aircraft) are likely to be deferred by 1-2 years.
- Several foreign carriers have loaded flights for sale after the current lockdown ends, with services scheduled for resumption over a period of several weeks from 16-Apr-2020 onwards. However, it is as yet uncertain whether these flights will operate as planned, either because of a government extension of the lockdown; insufficient demand materialising; or strategic network and schedule decisions taken by individual carriers based on their financial position. Despite the published schedules, at this stage most European and North American carriers are expected to operate very limited services in 1QFY2021, with a gradual increase from the second quarter. Gulf airlines are also expected to pursue a calibrated return to the Indian market. With Europe and the US having become the epicentres of COVID-19, all carriers serving westbound routes will be particularly impacted, especially as European and Gulf carriers rely significantly on US traffic to/from India.
Planned date of resumption of India services by selected foreign carriers
Planned date of resumption
(based on departure ex India)
Source: CAPA India research and analysis
Governments around the world have announced economic stimulus packages – and in some cases measures aimed specifically at the aviation sector – but approaches vary.
- The world’s largest aviation market, the United States, has also unveiled the most significant recovery package, valued at USD71 billion for the aviation industry alone. This consists of a combination of grants (to protect employee wages), loans and loan guarantees.
- But other Western economies, such as the UK and Canada, have to date not released an aviation-specific package and have instead mainly focused on job protection and wage subsidies across the entire economy. Australia similarly offers a wage subsidy programme, as well as waivers on various aviation taxes and charges. In Europe, governments have instead focused on providing loan guarantees for specific carriers.
- Australia and the UK have adopted differing approaches with respect to providing targeted support to specific companies. Australia’s position is that it cannot pick individual winners and losers but will instead offer support equitably to all industry operators, whereas the UK will offer bespoke support as a last resort.
- In the case of city states such as Singapore and Dubai, where there is a clear recognition of aviation as a strategic pillar of their economies, the governments have committed to providing very decisive support. Their stated objective is not only to help their carriers ride out the storm, but to prepare them to emerge as even strong competitors in the post-COVID environment.
Examples of government support in selected global markets
|United States of America||
|United Arab Emirates||
Source: CAPA India research and analysis
There are high expectations from the industry that the Indian government will bailout the sector, but this may be unrealistic.
- The nature and scale of any support package will have a significant bearing on the outlook for the industry. Levers available to the government, based on global practices, include the following:
|Initiative to support the industry||Likelihood of initiative in India|
|Direct equity infusions||
|Loans or working with banks to extend lines of credit supported by guarantees||
Waivers/moratoriums on airport and en route charges
|Waivers/moratorium on fuel charges||
|Waivers/moratorium on interest and principal payments||
|Waivers/moratorium on tax obligations||
|Permission to retain advance sales revenue as a credit rather than refunding cash in the event of cancelled flights||
Source: CAPA India research and analysis
- But despite its best intentions, the Government of India has multiple competing calls on its limited resources. There is only so much that it can offer to the aviation sector given that numerous industries across the economy are under severe stress. And the priority will understandably be on providing a basic health and economic safety net for the most vulnerable segments of society.
- As a result, rather than a strategic package involving direct cash infusions and loans, the government may only be in a position to offer more functional relief consisting of waivers and moratoriums on liabilities. Given the massive structural dislocation faced by the aviation sector, this may not be sufficient to rescue operators, particularly weaker companies.
- Due to the fact that it is still too early to predict the full extent of the impact on the industry, any government support may be announced incrementally as greater clarity about the state of the industry emerges over time.
- CAPA Advisory continues to believe in the need for the government to provide decisive support to airlines – with Air India and private airlines being treated equally – comprising of three phases, as outlined in our previous update:
- Emergency relief: consisting of wage subsidies to protect employment;
- Survival relief: consisting of waivers and moratoriums on various charges, taxes, and interest obligations;
- Set-up for recovery: bring Aviation Turbine Fuel under the GST framework with full input tax credit (in the interim, VAT should be reduced to 4%); direct cash injections; arrangement of credit lines with banks; temporary waiver on airport charges.
- There is a need for a coordinated national aviation industry response that addresses the requirements of all elements of the aviation industry and not just airlines, which tend to have the highest-profile. Potential support measures include:
- PPP airports: waivers/moratorium on revenue share payable to the Airports Authority of India, on interest and principal payments, and on GST and other taxes;
- Airports Authority of India: cash infusion to the offset the loss of revenue resulting from the impact on traffic and from waivers on aeronautical charges for airlines;
- Ground handlers: waivers/moratorium on revenue share payable to airport operators, on interest and principal payments, and on GST and other taxes, and possible cash injections to protect jobs;
- Travel distribution: Travel agents (offline and OTAs), tour operators and travel management companies, will be devastated by the evaporation of demand and will require support. Without a strong travel distribution network, the recovery of principals such as airlines and hotels will be compromised.
Airlines will have to make quick and difficult decisions for their short-term business plans
- Network and fleet strategies will require urgent attention, as retaining pre-COVID operations will not be feasible. Scheduled aircraft deliveries will need to be deferred for at least 12 months. These decisions may need to be taken in the absence of much forward visibility about the direction of the market and the economy. International operations, especially long haul services, will likely be the most difficult segment for which to project demand.
- With FY2021 set to be an exceptionally challenging year, all segments of the aviation value chain will need to immediately start planning for much smaller scale operations, supported by serious enterprise-wide restructuring. High profile airline failure such as Kingfisher and Jet Airways were arguably brought down because they did not right-size when necessary.
- As the saying goes: ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. This may be the best opportunity for Indian carriers to make difficult calls to rationalise their operations and clean up their balance sheets. Consolidation, collaboration and supply-side correction should enable airlines to move away from market-share driven strategies such as loss-leader pricing. Aggressive expansion without the necessary cash and balance sheet has been repeatedly shown to be a very high-risk strategy. The US has been the world’s most profitable airline market in recent years largely as a result of the consolidation that took place in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis.
- The government will also need to take important policy and regulatory decisions. One of the recommendations that CAPA Advisory has regularly proposed is the introduction of a requirement for airlines to hold cash balances that can support at least three, and ideally six, months of operations in the absence of revenue, in order to be able to both obtain and to renew an AOP.
You may also be interested in our other blog posts on the impact of COVID-19 on Indian Aviation: