Monday, 16 April 2012

Civil Aviation in India


India mulls over 49% overseas share in airlinesBy Raja Murthy

MUMBAI - The Indian government on April 12 postponed to this week an eagerly awaited decision to allow foreign airlines own up to 49% stake in Indian carriers. But overseas funding alone is unlikely to rescue India’s struggling US$12 billion civil aviation industry.

It's more a case of mismanaged potential that has caused five out of the six Indian carriers, except Indigo, to have accumulated losses of nearly $2 billion in the past two years. India, the world's ninth largest civil aviation market, had passenger traffic doubling  to over 150 million in 2011, from about 73 million in 2005-06.

India aims to be among the world's top three aviation markets within a decade. In between are mountains to climb and some strange oddities to correct - such as building multi-billion dollar luxury airports in an industry dominated by low-cost airlines.

The foreign direct investment (FDI) move, if it materializes as part of the mountain climbing process, could give desperately needed survival cash and breathing time to nearly dead flying companies like Kingfisher Airlines. The Vijay Mallya-promoted carrier is drowning in a debt of $1.3 billion, with no new loans forthcoming, with over 60% of its aircraft fleet grounded and its employees receiving salaries for December 2011 only on April 9.

The state-owned carrier Air India has similar mismanagement woes, but continues to receive public money to bankroll it. On April 12, the government approved 300 billion rupees (US$5.7 billion) as bailout and part of a revival plan for Air India across the next eight years. This after Civil Aviation minister Ajit Singh informed parliament that Air India incurs losses of $1.9 million every day, or over $700 million annually.

Whether Air India would fare better without government ownership is as moot a question as whether more funding, including FDI, could only be more investment down the drain. Waiting to be surgically treated are roots of the problem such as unviable operating costs for airlines.

Unfairly high taxes on aviation fuel have long been a major complaint for India's airline industry. Aviation Turbine Fuel (ATF) continues to be over 50% costlier in India than in Singapore and Malaysia. Fuel costs contribute about 45% of the operational costs of India's airlines.

Yet India's state-owned oil companies sell jet fuel cheaper to international airlines than for domestic flights in Indian airports. Indian Oil, for instance, sells jet fuel at $1,010 per kilo liter for international airlines in Mumbai (March 1, 2012 prices), while domestic airlines pay a pre-tax cost of $1,316.77. International airlines are free from sales tax on aviation fuel, while domestic airlines pay an additional 26% sales tax that local state governments levy.

Instead of the obvious step of reducing aviation fuel taxes to reasonable levels - or to only at least 25% above international levels - the Indian government earlier this year allowed domestic airlines to directly import aviation fuel. That seems as bizarre as asking an impoverished dying patient to go overseas to buy medicine available down the street.

Even more peculiar is that India exports nearly half its production of aviation fuel. According to Ministry of Petroleum data, India exported 4.478 million tonnes of aviation fuel in 2010-2011, out of total aviation fuel production of 9.570 million tonnes,

Fuel costs are only part of the problem. Aviation infrastructure growth appears heading in a direction different from requirements for industry growth. Privatization of metropolitan airports, for instance, resulted in multi-billion dollar upgrades for the Mumbai and Delhi airports, and new airports for Bangalore and Hyderabad. The impressive new airports though are driving up operational costs for a budget airline industry that critically needs low-cost infrastructure.

The spectacular new Terminal 3 of New Delhi's is itself both solution and problem. Built and operated by the Delhi International Airport (P) Ltd (DIAL) - a joint venture consortium of global infrastructure company GMR Group, Airports Authority of India, Fraport and Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad - Terminal 3 makes Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGI) one of Asia's largest public buildings and the world's second-largest integrated airport, after Beijing Capital International Airport.

The $6 billion Terminal 3, spread along 4 kilometers and with a roof area of 45 acres (18.2 hectares), serves as future investment for Delhi having the world's fastest growing airport passenger traffic. According to the Montreal-based Airport Councils International, Delhi registered passenger traffic growth of 21.77%, faster than Jakarta's 19.2% and Bangkok's 12% growth. This compares impressively to the 1.8% air passenger traffic growth in North America.

But India's airlines and passengers are being asked to pay more airport fees and taxes to recover the multi-billion dollar costs for the new airports. Both Air India and Kingfisher Airlines alone owe the Delhi airport $100.4 million in airport fees. So airport employees are also suffering salary delays.

International carriers are too feeling the pinch. Malaysia's Air Asia, the continent's leading budget airline, announced termination of its flights out of the Delhi and Mumbai airports from March 24 this year, citing excessively high airport and handling fees and aviation fuel costs at these airports. Air Asia continues to fly from five other cities in South India.

The Airports Economic Regulatory Authority has proposed a 280% increase in landing and parking charges at Delhi airport, while the airport operator DIAL wants a 700% increase. Not just low-cost airlines, but Lufthansa, Air France, KLM and British Airways have announced putting on hold expansion plans in India due to the huge hike in operational fees at IGI Terminal 3.

Such headaches were not quite anticipated when an Air Deccan 48-seater ATR turbo-prop aircraft took off from Hyderabad to Vijayawada on September 26, 2003, to unofficially launch low-cost airlines in India. Since then, a heavily loss-making Air Deccan was bought by Kingfisher in 2007, and now a heavily loss-making Kingfisher is looking to sell itself to a foreign carrier.

The pending 49% FDI decision on the governmental anvil is actually a throwback to over six decades ago. In 1951, the government bought a 49% stake in Air India, founded and owned by the Tata Group. The government retained an option to buy another 2% stake and became owner. It did so under the Air Corporations Act of 25 August 1953 that nationalized all private airlines.

Air travel was booming in India in the 1950s, with cheaply available World War II surplus aircraft and India having bountiful skilled air pilots and maintenance crews after the war. The 26-page "Official Airline Guide" of July 1952, published by the Air Transport Association of India, lists schedules for about nine domestic airlines: Air India Ltd (also called The Tata Airline), the Air Services of India (also called the Scindia Airline), Airways (India) Ltd, Bharat Airways (also called the Birla Airline), Deccan Airways, Himalayan Aviation, the Indian National Airways, Kalinga Airlines and Air India International.

In 1953, India had over 20 private airlines, with unstructured growth without proper infrastructure creating market problems similar to the current woes of some domestic airlines. JRD Tata (1904-1993), called the father of civil aviation in the subcontinent, predicated an industry disaster. One of the reasons why the government nationalized the entire airline industry in 1953 was apparently to ward off many private airlines going bankrupt.

Now with Air India saved from bankruptcy with a $5.7 billion gift of public money, the government may as well consider re-privatizing Air India, and selling 49% of the stock back to its original owners the Tata Group.

The $5.7 billion bailout and the 49% FDI decision for overseas investors have better chances of working only if the government ensures there being low-cost operational costs to support low-cost air travel.

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