Operating on Thin Long Routes

For a healthy growth of the Indian airline industry as well for enhanced convenience to passengers, there is no option but to provide direct point-to-point aerial connectivity

Issue: 6 / 2017By B.K. PandeyPhoto(s): By Embraer
Potentially a Great Contributor: E195-E2 can be a suitable aircraft to serve thin long routes in India helping in the reduction of chaos at the hub airports

Key Highlight

The MoCA may consider appropriate legislation that would mandate Indian carriers to take on at least a part if not all, of the operations in this segment for the overall benefit of the Indian airline industry and the travelling public.

There is no doubt that air travel provides the level of convenience that other modes of transportation do not. A journey on board an aircraft, whether an airliner or a business jet, helps save time especially when travelling over long distances even within the country. Sometimes, air travel could be the only means to reach remote areas or those locations that are not connected by other means of surface transport such as road or rail networks. In India, the facility to travel by air for the general public has undergone a sea change from the time the Indian airline industry which had been totally under the control of the Government of India since it was nationalised on August 1, 1953, was thrown open to the private sector in the early 1990s.

The Indian airline industry received a further impetus with the emergence on the scene of low-cost carriers (LCC), a concept introduced by Captain G.R. Gopinath in 2003. And more recently, the NDA Government has launched a campaign to bring the facility of air travel to the masses at affordable costs through major changes in the National Civil Aviation Policy (NCAP) the latest version of it was unveiled in June 2016. The newly introduced policy changes have been designed to exploit the immense potential of growth that lies in the regional aviation segment of the industry. In pursuit of this objective, the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) has also crafted the Regional Connectivity Scheme (RCS) as part of the NCAP, which entails the building and bringing into the operating network in a phased manner, a large number (reported to be around 200) of no-frills airports in the hinterland including remote and inaccessible areas of the country, to provide aerial connectivity to Tier-II, Tier-III and Tier-IV cities that currently do not figure in the existing aerial connectivity network.

The Indian airline industry has come a long way since its inception and especially over the last two and a half decades. However, despite the impressive growth, some frustrating gaps in the air transportation system do continue to linger thereby adversely affecting both its efficiency and productivity. Amongst the stakeholders, the worst sufferers of the adverse consequences of this malaise are those that travel by air and not the airlines themselves. There is no doubt that these gaps need to be plugged to make the air transportation system more efficient, dynamic as well as to reduce the level of inconvenience for the travelling public.

Thin Long Routes

In a conversation in the recent past with Jayant Baranwal, Editor-in-Chief, SP’s Aviation, Rajiv Nayan Choubey IAS, Secretary in the Ministry of Civil Aviation, while commenting on the Indian airline industry, spoke of “thin long routes” and the reluctance of Indian regional carriers to operate on these. In his perception, if Indian carriers begin to operate on thin long routes, it would help airlines to avoid transiting through heavily congested major hub airports making it more convenient for the travelling public. In the process, it would also help in reducing the crippling congestion at the six major hub airports that currently handle around 65 per cent of the civil air traffic in the country. As Indian carriers further expand their fleets with the passage of time and increase the number of flights, movement of aircraft through the six major hub airports will continue to increase thus further aggravating the problem of congestion at the major hub airports that have already reached or even crossed the saturation point. This has already become a serious issue for all stakeholders and the air passenger being the worst affected.

The expression “thin long routes”, not commonly used in civil aviation parlance, are those routes that are not “heavily travelled” on. In effect, it implies that the number of passengers travelling on these thin long routes is not large enough to generate passenger load factors of the level required to financially justify deployment of large capacity airliners such as the Airbus A320 or the Boeing 737 family of aircraft on these routes. Also, in the Indian context, distance-wise, these routes are so long that that these are clearly beyond the range of lower capacity aircraft such as the ATR family or the Bombardier Q400, both types of aircraft powered by turboprop engines with maximum ranges between 1,500 to 1,700 km. These aircraft are currently deployed for enhancement of regional connectivity. As neither the large capacity Airbus A320 nor the Boeing 737 family of aircraft, both at the higher end of the spectrum and the turboprop airliners at the lower end, operating with Indian carriers, are suitable to operate on thin long routes that would require the airliners to fly distances of 2,000 to 2,500 km. As the thin long routes do not provide adequate passenger load factors, this segment of the operating network remains practically unsubscribed. Passengers desirous of travelling on these segments have no option but to transit through one of the major hub airports. Consequently, apart from the problems associated with congestion, they have to bear the burden of higher air fares, time penalty and avoidable harassment of changing aircraft at the major hub airport they are required to transit through. In the final analysis, it is the public travelling by air that has to suffer the consequences of this yawning gap and the anomalies in the operational paradigm of Indian carriers.

Perspective of Indian Carriers

It is a well known fact that one of the primary aims of airlines is to be profitable which indeed is a prerequisite for their very survival. To achieve this objective, the regular airlines operate large jet powered aircraft such as the Airbus A320 or the Boeing 737 family of twin-jet airliners with a capacity of seating around 200 passengers, over longer routes that that invariably provide connectivity between the major hub airports as also to other points or destinations. These sectors provide respectable and remunerative passenger load factors. The regional airlines on the other hand, operate fleets of smaller aircraft such as the ATR or Bombardier Q400 turboprop platforms. These are of much lower seating capacity of around 70 to 75 passengers and with much lower range that are between 1,500 and 1,700 km and aim to connect smaller airports with the nearest major hub airport. This has led to the development of the hub-and-spoke concept and in effect, the regional carriers thus serve only as feeder airlines for the regular carriers. Under the existing pattern, regional carriers have not been providing connectivity amongst regional airports primarily because operations on the regional routes are not remunerative owing to low passenger traffic and load factors that do not justify the heavy investments required.

The Way Forward

For a healthy growth of the Indian airline industry as well for enhanced convenience to passengers, there is no option but to enhance direct point-to-point aerial connectivity. This will help eliminate unnecessary transit stops for passengers at the major hub airports translating into lower air fares, mitigate the level of congestion and reduce total fuel burn thus benefitting the environment as well through lower emissions. There is therefore the need for Indian carriers to look at options beyond the hub-andspoke model and consider operating direct point-to-point and especially on thin long routes. It goes without saying that to break out of the hub-and-spoke model and focus on thin long routes, the airlines would have to induct aircraft with range higher than what the ATR family and Bombardier Q400 are capable of. For better passenger load factors, it would also be desirable to select a platform with seating capacity lower than the 180 to 200 seats that the Boeing 737 and Airbus A320 offer. In other words, for operations to be financially viable on thin long routes, the airlines will need an aircraft that has range and seating capacity that lies between the two categories of platforms currently being operated for regional and regular operations. Fortunately, two new platforms that could well meet with these requirements are on the horizon. These are the regional airliners from Embraer of Brazil especially their latest product, the E195-E2 as also the Mitsubishi MRJ from Japan.

While the need for airlines to operate on thin long routes is an inescapable necessity, in view of the heavy investment required to induct a fleet of a new class of aircraft, the leading Indian carriers would understandably be reluctant to take on this task regarding it as an additional financial burden. The Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) would have to consider expanding the scope of RCS to include operations on thin long routes and provide adequate financial incentives to offset losses suffered by the Indian carriers who opt to operate on these routes. Alternatively, the MoCA may consider appropriate legislation that would mandate Indian carriers to take on at least a part if not all, of the operations in this segment for the overall benefit of the Indian airline industry and the travelling public.