India’s low-cost carriers: reached their peak or yet to dominate?

Anand Balaji /

Over the past decade, low-cost carriers have made significant gains when compared to their full-service carrier (FSC) counterparts in India. Not only have they chipped away, and later on taken huge bites, from the market share within the country, but have also survived difficulties, unlike their competitors. Such airlines as Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines are no longer operating, while Air India is barely limping on, as the government looks to privatize and rid of the headache associated with the flag carrier. Vistara, a joint venture between Tata Sons, an Indian conglomerate, and Singapore Airlines (SIA1) (SINGY), looks to change the fortunes of FSCs in India.

The question is whether low-cost carriers have reached their peak in India or are they only going to make further strides and choke out their competitors?

History of low-cost carriers in India

The history of India’s aviation has some similarities to the United States’ industry. While the regulation in the US was fairly stringent, India took it to the next level as the country essentially had had two airlines prior to 1994: Air India and Indian Airlines.

The two government-owned entities operated on different markets – while Indian Airlines was busy carrying passengers throughout the domestic market, Air India zig-zagged between India and international markets. Changes began in small steps. Initially, local policymakers allowed private entities to operate as air taxis in 1986. The relaxation of rules was a result of “complaints from the tourism sector that there was insufficient capacity on some key routes,” concluded Paul Hooper in 1997. Throughout the next decade, several changes followed, including the fact that Air India and Indian Airlines were privatized. Commercial entities, including foreign investors, were granted more leeway to operate in the market. Jet Airways was one of the first airlines to utilize the fact that out-of-country investors were now able to invest in India-based airlines, as Kuwait Airlines and Gulf Air took a 20% stake in Jet Airways each. However, all was not smooth sailing.

Most importantly, privately-owned carriers were allowed to conduct scheduled services with the shift of the Air Corporations Act in 1994.

“The Government levies heavy taxes on the airlines, it forces the airlines to cross-subsidize unprofitable routes, and it keeps the general level of fares down while protecting its own carrier. Under these difficult and uncertain conditions, there has been a remarkably robust interest by the private sector,” further commented Hooper in his paper.

Low-cost carriers began to sprawl up in the early-2000s. IndiGo, Go Air, SpiceJet’s predecessor Royal Airways, and Air India Express were established between 2004 and 2005. Several others, including Air Deccan, which was the first LCC in the country, were also established during the same period. Unfortunately, only the aforementioned LCCs have survived. Perhaps inspired by the cases of such airlines like easyJet, Southwest Airlines (LUV), and Ryanair across Europe and the US, no-frills carriers were growing fast.

Still, the government had held a firm grip on the aviation market in the country. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) only allowed airlines to begin fuel hedging in 2007, a luxury that only Air India enjoyed prior to the RBI’s decision. Furthermore, domestic airlines were forced to operate unprofitable domestic routes, as well as operate to the main airports within the country. At the end of the day, Indian low-cost carriers could not truly replicate the no-frills models of their counterparts across the globe and had to abide by the rules set out by local lawmakers. A great case in point could be the fact that in 2011, all India-based airlines were forced to hand out free drinking water on aircraft, as “during the flight, humidity in the cabins decreases. Water intake is must for passengers,” a Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) official was quoted by Hindustan Times in October 2011.

Period of growth

Nevertheless, low-cost carriers managed to achieve significant gains and outlast some of their full-service counterparts, as such carriers as Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways saw their demise while pointing out that Air India is struggling would be an understatement.

By the end of FY2015, as India reached a record-breaking 70.08 million domestic passengers, the majority of that pie was split by six airlines: IndiGo, Jet Airways, Air India, SpiceJet, Go Air, and JetLite, the LCC subsidiary of Jet Airways. Out of the six, four were no-frills airlines. However, what was interesting that at the end of FY2014 was the fact that out of the six, only two averaged a break-even load factor (BELF), per DGCA data, IndiGo and Go Air. As a result, the two airlines had an average occupancy rate that would allow the company to make a profit on a flight. The two FSCs, namely Air India and Jet Airways, averaged a load factor (LF) of 73.5% and 78.2%, while their BELF was 86.1% and 91.2%, respectively. Even Jet Airways’ LCC JetLite had an average PLF of 72.7%, while the BELF was, on average, 92.2%.

By the end of FY2019, JetLite lost a portion of the pie, giving up parts of its slices to AirAsia India and Vistara. In total, low-cost carriers held around 70% of the total domestic market within India, growing from around 65.7% of their market share by the end of FY2015. Once again, at the end of FY2018, five airlines had a positive difference between their BELF and LF. Three LCCs, namely Go Air, IndiGo and SpiceJet were on that list, joined by Air India Express, the regional subsidiary of Air India, and Zoom Air, a small regional airline. Jet Airways, including its subsidiary JetLite, Air India, AirAsia India and Vistara, on average, lost money when operating flights within the country.

The peak of dominance?

It still could be that low-cost carriers have yet reached their peak of dominance within the country. For one, the DGCA has been relaxing rules for airlines across the years. In 2015, the authority began relaxing the rules of what has to be included in a ticket. For example, in an Air Transport Circular (ATC) 03 of 2015, dated November 8, 2015, the DGCA allowed airlines to unbundle such services as seat choices, meals or snacks, including drinks (excluding drinking water), charges for using lounges, check-in bag charges and special equipment charges. The latest ATC, dated February 23, 2021, allowed airlines to offer no-baggage fares.

Liberating the market is a dream scenario for a low-cost carrier, as it allows them to knock down fares to levels that full-service carriers cannot match due to the relationship between cost, which naturally is higher at FSCs, and yields. It all comes down to the basics of the low-cost model in aviation: low fares, a lot of emphasis on ancillary revenues, low costs, high aircraft utilization to drive ancillary revenues from one aircraft and operating to secondary airports. However, that last point is still tricky in India, which the government is trying to tackle. With the launch of UDAN-RCS, a regional connectivity scheme, in April 2017, the local government is looking to develop connectivity within India. The motto of the project nails down the goals of UDAN-RCS, as the government wants to “let the common citizen of the country fly.”

The project comprises of two initiatives: developing regional airports and increasing connectivity by introducing fare-capped routes to underserved airports. If the fare-capped route is loss-making for operators, the government will either grant certain concessions or financial support to meet the gap “between the cost of airline operations and expected revenues on such routes.”

Still, international flights are largely unavailable to low-cost carriers from India. While contemporary narrow-body aircraft are capable of operating quite long sectors, including connecting the country with Gulf countries, for one, they still lack the range to connect India with such destinations as the United Kingdom or the US, where a large diaspora of Indian ex-pats are residing. The fact that there is a market there could be affirmed by SpiceJet’s adventurous attempt of operating long-haul flights between India and the UK and the US, which so far has been deferred due to the worsening situation of the pandemic, by utilizing wet-lease agreements. For full-service carriers, the market is, bar the pandemic, largely available at hand due to the simple fact that they own the aircraft required to operate these routes. Vistara began flying to London in August 2020 and is looking to expand its international presence, while Air India, despite its difficulties, has always had an international presence.

At the same time, India is a lucrative market for other airlines as well, providing plenty of competition for India’s airlines. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, the question is whether the rock, which could be associated to low-cost carriers, would force full-service carriers to further give up market share within the country or will the current pandemic would be a facilitator for their retaliation and eventual swing of fortunes.


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