Indian aviation faces massive disruption on the road out of COVID

May 1, 2020by capa-india

1 May 2020

Recovery will not be easy and will require critical strategic decisions to be taken by the industry and government

Indian aviation is expected to confront a series of challenges in the coming weeks and months, each of which could have a serious structural impact. The risks and implications are arguably under-estimated at a policy level.

Grounding operations was relatively straightforward, but the road out of the lockdown is far more complex. The financial and operational challenges associated with the resumption of services are potentially so significant, that some carriers may choose to remain grounded, whilst others may not survive.

Assuming that air services resume from 01-Jun-2020, the industry will by that stage have been grounded for over two months, after having already experienced a sharp decline in traffic in March. The four months from June to September will be a critical phase. This includes the weakest period of the year for air travel in India even at the best of times, let alone in the aftermath of a once-in-a-century crisis.

To compound the situation, the economy will be in a battered state, and several challenges that are not visible during the lockdown will only become apparent once the services resume. While the industry has been in shutdown and the economy in a state of suspense, it may have been possible to defer certain obligations. But once business starts up again, airlines will once again be confronted with reality.

As our analysis in this document shows, some carriers may even struggle to cover their variable costs up until the end of 2QFY2021 due to market conditions and the constraints imposed by possible social distancing requirements. If that is the case, airlines will have experienced more or less six months with little or no contribution to fixed costs. That will be crippling for many carriers and other aviation businesses.

The government and industry will need to collaborate to rethink and redesign the aviation to emerge from the crisis and move towards a sustainable future

The current COVID crisis must be used to initiate structural changes for the long-term viability of the sector. The industry will need to make some hard choices. Despite carriers being pushed to the limit, most airline promoters have shown themselves to be either unable or unwilling to recapitalise their businesses.

Perhaps this is due to uncertainty about the way out, or the possibility of another major shock down the road. Will it be a case of throwing good money after bad?

Now is the time for promoters to decide whether they wish to remain in the business. And if so, they need to commit, and business models need to change. Most airlines in India are over-reliant on sale-and-leaseback margins and advance sales to generate cash. The pursuit of aggressive growth without the balance sheet to support such a strategy will inevitably come undone whenever the next shock hits.

Airlines will need to restructure their businesses to become leaner and reduce costs, whilst also increasing the strategic deployment of technology and analytics to enhance revenue and improve efficiency. Airports will also need to become less top-heavy, reduce manpower, focus on training, invest in technology and better understand the passenger.

The government must adopt a fresh perspective on the appropriate policy and regulatory framework, as well as institutional infrastructure. There is a need for NCAP 2.0.

The original National Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) released in 2016 was designed for an environment of growth. Post-COVID there is a need for NCAP 2.0 – possibly as an interim measure – to support sectoral emergence from the crisis through the stages of survival, stabilisation, recovery and eventually expansion. Key issues that will need to be considered in framing this policy include:

  • Why do airlines fail in India?
  • How can corporate governance be strengthened?
  • How is it that airlines with weak balance sheets are able to pursue aggressive growth? Can we regulate minimum cash reserves?
  • Why do we celebrate profitless growth rather than sustainability?
  • How can the fiscal environment be made less punitive?
  • Was it necessary to change the model of economic regulation of airports to a per passenger fee, just when the till framework was stabilising?
  • How can we ensure that bids for airport operator concessions are rational and do not compromise the returns of the entire downward value chain? Excessive revenue share ultimately only serves to subsidise the AAI’s losses rather than benefit the exchequer.
  • What needs to be done to unleash the strengths of the Airports Authority of India? If allowed, it has the ability to become a truly independent airport infrastructure and management group even without revenue share from private airports.
  • How can the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security be recast for today’s environment, by making it more technology-focused rather than people-focused?
  • What measures will enhance the competitiveness of the MRO sector to be able to reduce costs for Indian airlines and to generate employment in-country?
  • How can the ground handling sector be streamlined?
  • What can be done to position air cargo and express as strategic components of a modern and globally-integrated Indian economy?
  • Why have air navigation services not yet been corporatised?
  • How can training and education infrastructure be incentivised?
  • How can we strengthen the DGCA to become an independent, professional regulator along the lines of the UK Civil Aviation Authority?
  • What is required to build policy-making capacity?

Since 2014 the Ministry has initiated several major initiatives in the sector such as NCAP, UDAN, and relaxation of the 5 year/20 aircraft rule. And it has demonstrated a strategic determination to privatise Air India and non-metro airports.

In continuation of this positive approach, COVID represents the best opportunity to implement step changes to remove all barriers to growth and viability.

And, in addition to the steps that the government takes with respect to the Indian market, it must encourage the adoption of a global, coordinated strategy to ensure a harmonisation of COVID-related measures across all countries. If the aviation industry has to navigate a patchwork of regulations for international operations, the costs and complexity will further damage any recovery.

If the imminent Supreme Court ruling on passenger refunds goes against the airlines – as is likely – it could trigger the need to fund USD300 million of domestic refunds. This will be the next big test for the sector.

After domestic and international air services in India were grounded from 25-Mar-2020, Indian carriers informed passengers that payment received for travel on flights that had been cancelled as a result of the lockdown, would be held in credit for a period of 12 months rather than being refunded.  CAPA has consistently taken the position that this is unfair for consumers.

In fact, the airlines’ stance is in contravention of the Civil Aviation Requirement (CAR) on the refund of airline tickets (dated 22-May-2008), as well as the Passenger Charter of 2019. The CAR states that refunds must be processed within the following timeframes:

  • immediate (when the ticket is paid for by cash);
  • 7 days (when paid by credit card);
  • and 30 working days (when purchased through a travel agent).

The CAR & the Passenger Charter further clearly state that “the option of holding the refund amount in credit shell by the airlines shall be the prerogative of the passenger and not a default practice”.

The DGCA has not issued a formal notification stating that these rights have been suspended due to the emergency conditions prevailing. It did however release a circular instructing airlines to issue cash refunds for reservations made on/after 25-Mar-2020, once the lockdown had commenced. But this did not address the concerns of the majority of affected passengers who had made bookings prior to the lockdown. A plea has correspondingly been filed with the Supreme Court.

If the Supreme Court rules in favour of passengers – as is likely – the value of refunds that airlines will be liable for are estimated at over USD500 million, which includes around USD300 million for domestic bookings and over USD200 million for international travel and other refunds. Furthermore, airlines may be ordered to process refunds within a relatively short period of time.

Passenger refunds have become a contentious issue globally. In the US and the EU airlines have been asked to make cash refunds, to which IATA has expressed “deep disappointment” arguing that this is not feasible given force majeure conditions.

This week, 12 EU member states issued a statement requesting the European Commission to temporarily amend the passenger rights regulation, as it was conceived “at a time when the current global crisis and its impact on air travel could not have been foreseen”. They propose that airlines instead be permitted to issue credit vouchers offering maximum flexibility and retaining the option of being reimbursed in full at some point in the future. The proposal notes that a mechanism to protect the holder of a voucher in the event of airline bankruptcy would be required.

Others have suggested that airlines should offer passengers the option of either a cash refund or a voucher for future travel, but only if they meaningfully incentivise the latter e.g. offer value over and above that which the passenger paid.

Social distancing and inspection protocols issued by the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security will seriously impact the ability of airlines to even recover their variable costs. Some carriers may lose less money by remaining grounded.

In order to maintain social distancing on board aircraft, the Bureau of Civil Aviation Security has proposed that when airlines resume services they must not sell the middle seat, and the last three rows should be kept vacant in the event that a passenger needs to be quarantined mid-flight.

The implication of this is that on a 180-seat narrowbody aircraft, an airline can sell at maximum 108 seats, representing a 60% load factor. Even if social distancing is not in place, demand conditions are expected to be so weak that passenger loads are in any case unlikely to be any higher than that. This will naturally increase the average break-even fare.

There are other considerations that will place further upward pressure on the break-even fare. Turnaround times may increase as a result of increased sanitation requirements and revisions to passenger facilitation processes to maintain social distancing. In such a scenario aircraft utilisation would decline and unit costs would rise.

Furthermore, if the fixed costs associated with the sizeable proportion of the fleet that is initially likely to remain on the ground due to weak demand, are allocated to the operational aircraft, the break-even fare will increase further. We have not taken this into account in the analysis below, and even without this element average break-even fares would increase by 40-100%.

Estimated average fares (INR) required to meet variable costs on selected routes upon resumption of domestic operations
Sector Approx. average fare required to meet variable cost based on regular operations Approx. average fare required to meet variable cost based on social distancing Approx. average fare required to meet variable cost based on social distancing and reduced utilisation
Delhi-Mumbai 2,700 3,900 5,300
Delhi-Bangalore 3,200 4,500 6,100
Delhi-Jammu 1,700 2,400 3,300

Notes: 1) Brent crude assumed at USD40/barrel 2) Regular average daily aircraft utilisation assumed as 11 hours, reduced utilisation assumed as 8 hours 3) assumed 85% load factor under regular operations and 60% under social distancing 4) fixed costs associated with grounded aircraft have not been allocated to operational aircraft 5) average fares have been grossed up to include taxes and charges.

Estimated average fares (INR) required to meet total costs on selected routes upon resumption of domestic operations
Sector Approx. average fare required to meet total cost based on normal operations Approx. average fare required to meet total cost based on social distancing Approx. average fare required to meet total cost based on social distancing and reduced utilisation
Delhi-Mumbai 5,000 7,000 9,700
Delhi-Bangalore 5,700 8,100 11,200
Delhi-Jammu 3,100 4,300 5,900

Notes: 1) Brent crude assumed at USD40/barrel 2) Regular average daily aircraft utilisation assumed as 11 hours, reduced utilisation assumed as 8 hours 3) assumed 85% load factor under regular operations and 60% under social distancing 4) fixed costs associated with grounded aircraft have not been allocated to operational aircraft 5) average fares have been grossed up to include taxes and charges.

Furthermore, with limited seats available to sell, managing inventory to achieve the above average fares will be incredibly challenging. The yield that will have to be generated from bookings within the last seven days before departure may be far higher than can reasonably be achieved in the market, especially in a weakened economic environment.

As an example, the indicative profile of LCC bookings on the Delhi-Mumbai route is as follows:

  • 30% of seats are sold more than 15 days prior to departure, with demand resistance noticeable at fares above INR3,500;
  • 40% of seats are sold between 7 and 15 days prior to departure, with demand resistance noticeable at fares above INR4,500;
  • 30% of seats are sold less than 7 days prior to departure, at an average fare of around INR7,000. This is an average and can even increase up to INR 10,000 for last minute passengers.

If a similar profile is applied with social distancing in place, where 30% of seats are sold at an average of INR3,500, and 40% at INR4,500, the average fare that will be required from the remaining passengers will be significantly higher. If there are only 108 seats available for sale, the 30% last minute bookings would need to be made at an average fare of INR13,900 to break-even. If daily aircraft utilisation declines from 11 hours to 8 hours, this will increase further to INR22,700.

Even achieving an average last minute fare of INR7,000 will be extremely difficult in Q2 given the weakened state of demand, while INR13,900 or higher will be impossible.

The second quarter is always an acid test for the sector, with the most difficult trading conditions. This year it will be a make-or-break period.

Underlying demand conditions in Q2 will be particularly weak, while social distancing will push up airfares to a level that will further choke-off demand. And even if airlines are permitted to operate without any social distancing requirements, subject to passengers wearing masks (or even PPE suits), this is unlikely to have any significant impact on traffic in Q2, given that demand is expected to very low.

By the end of Q2 most carriers will have had little or no contribution to their fixed costs for more or less six months. This level of financial pressure is likely to break the resistance of the industry and the failure of some operators is inevitable in the absence of recapitalisation. As a result, the second half of the year is expected to see a reduction in capacity due to market exit.

However, these estimates are presented with the caveat that we are in highly uncertain times, and projecting the direction of the market is fraught with difficulty. We expect to continue to revise our estimates over time.

Consumer interest in air travel and forward bookings have collapsed, with green shoots currently not visible until September

Online search activity for travel to/from and within India has all but dried up over the last few weeks. Skyscanner data shows that whilst searches for travel related to India were up 20-30% year-on-year in Jan/Feb-2020, this has since evaporated. In the week commencing 20-Apr-2020, searches were down by 90.9%.

Year-on-year change in travel searches related to India since 13-Jan-2020
Source: Skyscanner

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As of last week, searches for travel over the next four months are down by more than 90% year-on-year. In fact, for travel in May-2020, the decline is 98.5%. It is only once we look ahead to Sep-2020 that we see a lesser decline.

Travel agents report virtually no forward booking activity. This is in part due to uncertainty about travel restrictions, but also because the airline practice of not refunding passengers for cancelled travel has damaged consumer trust.

Year-on-year change in redirects on Skyscanner during the week commencing 20-Apr-2020 for travel related to India during May-2020 to Sep-2020
Source: Skyscanner

 

CAPA has revised downward its traffic estimates for FY2021 to 55-70 million domestic and 20-27 million international passengers

We have assumed that there will be little to no traffic in the months of April and May. Assuming a gradual resumption of services from the month of June, the industry will soon thereafter be heading into the second quarter, historically the weakest period for travel demand in India.

The combination of the monsoon quarter, fragile economic conditions and lingering passenger fears about the safety of travel, could prove to be a devastating cocktail for airlines.

Weak underlying demand may be further exacerbated by potential processes and protocols that could negatively impact the passenger experience, such as:

  • the need to check-in much earlier due to increased passenger facilitation requirements;
  • health screenings at airports and onboard aircraft;
  • reduced facilities at airports;
  • limited inflight service;
  • and possibly even a requirement to wear personal protective equipment.

International travel in particular is likely to remain very subdued until a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 is found due to a combination of border restrictions; inability to obtain insurance cover; fear of infection or of travel disruption; and likely higher fares due to social distancing. Given that there are a number of moving parts, estimating traffic is very challenging.

In such circumstances, the demand for air transport is likely to be limited to essential reasons, with passengers choosing to postpone any discretionary travel. The downward revision in traffic projections is in part driven by the increasingly negative consumer sentiment.

CAPA revised projections for FY2021 passenger traffic in India
Passenger category 1HFY2021 2HFY2021 FY2021
Domestic airline passengers 15-20 million (likely towards the lower end of the range) 40-50 million 55-70 million
International airline passengers 5-7 million 15-20 million (likely towards the lower end of the range) 20-27 million

Source: CAPA India research and analysis

Note: Projections assume that social distancing protocols do not apply from 2HFY2021

Airlines will need to quickly adjust their operations to the new traffic estimates

Based on our revised traffic projections, if the competitive structure of the industry was to remain unchanged, CAPA estimates that Indian carriers would operate around 265-300 aircraft in the domestic market in 2HFY2021 and 80-95 on international routes.

Airline Estimated fleet for domestic operations Estimated fleet for international operations
IndiGo 135 – 150 25-30
SpiceJet 40 – 50 10-15
Air India 30 35-40
GoAir 30 5
AirAsia India 15 – 20
Vistara 15 – 20 5
TOTAL 265-300 80-95

The total estimated operational fleet of 345-395 aircraft compares with a pre-COVID fleet of around 650 aircraft, resulting in a surplus of 255-305 aircraft. In the event that there are some airline failures, the fleet size is unlikely to be dissimilar in absolute terms, however, the distribution by carrier will obviously differ.

Indian carriers (excluding IndiGo) may need to raise a minimum of USD2.5 billion of capital. Even IndiGo, which is relatively better-placed, may need to enhance liquidity in the event of a prolonged crisis.

The estimate of USD2.5 billion (of which Air India accounts for USD1.5 billion) may even prove to be highly conservative as the extent of the structural damage to the industry is yet to be understood.

This amount may only be sufficient to be able to survive until the market starts to turnaround, and additional funds could be required for recovery. Much will depend upon factors such as the state of the economy and the timing of any vaccine or cure.

IndiGo is well-placed in terms of cash reserves (USD1.13 billion of free cash and USD1.33 billion of restricted cash) compared with other Indian carriers. However, it too is not immune to risks in the event of a prolonged crisis. If it is only able to recover variable costs up until the end of Q2, IndiGo’s free cash may approach exhaustion and it could eventually need to dip into its restricted cash in the second half. The timing of this could be extended by a few months by negotiating deferrals on some payments to ride out the storm. But if risks remain elevated, IndiGo may consider enhancing its liquidity, such is the nature of the crisis.

Regional aviation operators may remain grounded as social distancing will severely impact viability

Based on the expected social distancing regulations, airlines would be able to operate an ATR or Q400 with a maximum load factor of around 42%. It will simply not be possible to achieve viable operations under such constraints.

Even if the protocols permit all seats to be sold – provided that passenger wear masks (or even PPE suits) – travellers may be reluctant to be in close proximity to others in small turboprop cabins.

Either way, regional services will be severely impacted until at least the second half of FY2021. As a result, some carriers may decide to keep their turboprop fleets grounded until conditions improve.

The privatisation of Air India continues to be high on the government’s agenda

In Feb-2020 the government had initiated the process for divesting 100% of its holding in Air India. The original date for submission of expressions of interest (EOI) was 15-Mar-2020. However, due to the impact of COVID the deadline has been extended to 30-Jun-2020.

Given that both investors and the government would want to see what the post-COVID environment looks like, prior to establishing a valuation for the national carrier, it is highly likely that the EOI deadline will be further extended to at least October, and possibly even December.

Despite the fact that divestment has stalled the government remains very keen to privatise Air India. It may even seek to fast-track the process once it resumes, as it will otherwise need to commit several billion dollars of capital.

With the government looking unlikely to offer any specific relief to the aviation sector, at least at this stage, the industry needs a Plan B

To date, the Government of India has not extended sector-specific relief packages to any industry along the lines of that which has been announced in several other global markets.

With multiple competing claims on the exchequer at this time, there may be limitations to what can be expected. And indeed, the government’s calibrated approach of not rushing to bail out the industry may be sensible. Given that at this stage it is impossible to determine how deep the damage will ultimately be, the government may be better advised not to use up its ammunition now, but rather to assist during the recovery phase.

The industry must not rely on the government coming to its aid – at least initially – in the manner in which it is seeking. Instead it must urgently find new ways and means to recapitalise. That is the only Plan B.

Conclusion
  • The first major test for the industry will be the Supreme Court decision on cash refunds, as some carriers may need to organise funds to comply should the court rule in favour of passengers.
  • Social distancing protocols will constrain airline capacity. However, demand in Q2 is expected to be so weak in any case that it is unlikely that traffic would be much higher if there were no restrictions.
  • CAPA has revised its traffic projections downwards for FY2021 from our 06-Apr-2020 update (the estimate for domestic traffic has declined from 80-90 million, to 55-70 million, while international estimates are down from 35-40 million to 20-27 million) as the structural damage and weakness of customer sentiment become more visible. Forward bookings are currently frozen.
  • Indian carriers will need to re-align their fleet deployment plans with the expected levels of demand.

In order to successfully emerge from this crisis and transition to a sustainable industry, the entire value chain and the government will need to rethink aviation in the country. This will require a National Civil Aviation Policy 2.0 to be designed to support sectoral recovery.

 

You may also be interested in our other blog posts on the impact of COVID-19 on Indian Aviation:

18-Mar-2020 | Impact of COVID-19 on Indian aviation

23-Mar-2020 | Shutdown of scheduled domestic airline operations in India

25-Mar-2020 | Projecting the potential financial impact of COVID-19 on Indian Aviation

06-Apr-2020 | COVID-19 & the State of the Indian Aviation Industry – Update 3