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Race in the Sky
India’s aviation sector is abuzz with domestic airline companies scrambling to place orders for new, fuel-efficient aircraft as part of their fleet expansion plans to meet the growing surge in traffic
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The Tata Group's love for Air India got a whole new meaning this Valentine’s Day. On February 14, Tata Sons placed an order for a whopping 470 aircraft, with an option to buy 370 more planes, by signing Letters of Intent (LoI) with Airbus and Boeing, the two largest manufacturers of aircraft.
The order consists of 40 Airbus A350s, 20 Boeing 787s and 10 Boeing 777-9s wide-body aircraft, as well as 210 Airbus A320/321 Neos and 190 Boeing 737 MAX single-aisle aircraft. The A350 aircraft will be powered by Rolls-Royce engines, and the B777/787s by engines from GE Aerospace. All single-aisle aircraft will be powered by engines from CFM International.
N. Chandrasekaran, Chairman, Tata Sons and Air India described the purchase order as "a large transformation journey" for Air India. "These new aircraft will modernise the airline’s fleet and on-board product, and dramatically expand its global network. The growth enabled by this order will also provide unparalleled career opportunities for Indian aviation professionals and catalyse accelerated development of the Indian aviation ecosystem,” he said.
This LoI is in line with Vihaan.AI, the airline’s transformational roadmap over five years with clear milestones. Vihaan.AI is aimed at putting Air India on a path of sustained growth, profitability and market leadership.
The first lot of the new aircraft will enter service in late 2023, with the bulk scheduled to arrive from mid-2025 onwards. In the interim, Air India has already started taking delivery of 11 leased B777 and 25 A320 aircraft to accelerate its fleet and network expansion.
The acquisition of new aircraft, which will come with new cabin interiors, complements Air India’s plan to refit its existing wide body B787 and B777 aircraft with new seats and inflight entertainment systems. The first of these refitted aircraft will enter service in mid-2024.
Aviation experts say the delivery of new set of aircraft will necessitate the need for skilled manpower. For example, the 40 A350 aircraft that has been ordered will be mostly used for ultra-long-haul routes. International regulation stipulates a minimum of eight crew members on a long-haul flight carrying 300-plus passengers, as well as a minimum of four pilots in the cockpit. Additional pilots and crew at the destination for the return/onward journey will take the number of in-flight support to 20-25 personnel. Add to it the ground crew as well as maintenance and support staff of at least 10-12x the in-flight staff strength. Thus, for the 40 A350 airceaft, an estimated 16,000 personnel would be needed. Of course, the various positions will be filled in tandem with the aircraft deliveries and other factors. The short-haul flights, like those expected to be serviced by Airbus A320/321 Neos and 190 Boeing 737 MAX, requires 4-5 crew members and a two/ three-member team in the cockpit.
Mega Order Book
It’s not just Air India purchasing new aircraft. In fact, the half-dozen carriers making up the domestic aviation sector have a combined order book of more than 1,200 aircraft. Of course, carriers have placed orders at different times in the past few years. According to aircraft maker Boeing, India would require over 2,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years to keep pace with the passenger growth. If one sets aside the latest LoI from Air India, then IndiGo, the largest carrier by market share has already placed an order for around 500 aircraft. New entrant Akasa Air's order is for 72 Boeing narrow-body aircraft of which it has received 16. Go First has ordered for 72 planes while Vistara is to receive 17 more Boeing planes till 2024.
IndiGo, the largest domestic airline in India, has announced plans to focus on expanding its operations in the international sector, particularly Europe. As part of this expansion strategy, IndiGo has formed a codeshare partnership with Turkish Airlines and also placed an order for almost 500 aircraft from Airbus. According to Vinay Malhotra, Head of International Sales, IndiGo, the airline has already placed an order for aircraft with the French airplane manufacturer Airbus, which has committed to deliver consistently until 2030. IndiGo is presently operating a fleet of over 300 aircraft.
The pace and timing of the airline's expansion plans will be influenced by the delivery schedule of these aircraft. As and when the new planes are received, they will be put into service on both domestic and international routes, Malhotra added.
SpiceJet, currently under financial stress and entangled in legal issues over payments to its former promoter, has also placed orders for some aircraft. And as and when the now-grounded Jet Airways takes to the air, it will also need new aircraft.
The latest data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation reveals that India's air passenger traffic surged 47 per cent year-on-year in 2022. In actual terms, a total of 123.2 million passengers flew in 2022. This remarkable growth, experts say, signals a robust rebound from the subdued travel demand experienced in 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Perhaps, this is why the airline companies are gearing up with orders for newer, better and fuel-efficient aircraft, sensing a mega surge in aviation traffic starting 2024.