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2023 Ends In A Whimper For Indian Aviation, But 2024 Could Be More Exciting

2023 was not a particularly exciting or happy year for India’s aviation sector with many loose ends remaining.

By Anjuli Bhargava
New Update
Indian Aviation in 2023

In 2019, India’s largest private airline Jet Airways ceased flying and shut shop. 2020 was the pandemic year when all airlines globally halted operations for a short time as the world came to a standstill. In 2021, India’s national carrier was sold to one of India’s largest business conglomerates, the Tata Group. 

All three years were biggies as far as India’s aviation industry was concerned: more gloom than joy but dramatic nonetheless.

In comparison, 2023 was a relatively unexciting and forgettable year for the sector even though one airline went down. Mumbai headquartered Go First (in troubled times post-pandemic, Go lived up to its name and became the first to go beating rival SpiceJet!) declared itself bankrupt and stopped flying in April 2023 but since the airline was floundering for a while and did not have a significant market share, the ripples and consequences while significant for employees have not impacted India’s aviation story in any way. The void left by the airline’s disappearance on certain routes has been quickly filled by the others.

The Year Gone By

The other not-so-happy development during the year — this oddly happened globally — was the passing away of some pilots while on duty, which the commanders and crew in India at least blame on excessive fatigue and stress on account of unreasonable flying rosters, a safety concern for all. In India, the authorities were quick to swing into action to relook at the flight duty limits and have come up with something far more palatable for the crew. The coming year should see this finalised and turned into policy. Actions against errant commanders by the latest low-fare airline in the fray Akasa Air added to the discontent among the wider community, who were incensed by the aggressive move by the airline to sue select pilots.

Meanwhile, the good news for airlines has been that domestic traffic has surged, backed by strong demand and while oil prices have fluctuated wildly, IndiGo, the largest and most disciplined private low-fare airline, has managed to wipe out some of the losses accumulated during and post-pandemic in 2020 and 2021. The year 2024 is likely to offer more clarity on the prospects of the smaller players -SpiceJet and Akasa, who need much more financial muscle to survive the changed dynamics in Indian skies. The revival of Jet Airways too remained a chimera, despite noises that it would finally take off. The resignation of both CEOs — Sanjeev Kapoor for Jet and Kaushik Khona for Go First — ended hopes of a revival although even as this went to press, rumours of interest from SpiceJet in Go First appeared in newspapers.

As we approach 2024, two big grey clouds remain on the horizon. The biggest elephant in the room remains the erstwhile national carrier Air India. Although all hands appear on board and the CEO has declared that the airline is in the take-off stage, Air India has yet to deliver in any discernible manner. This year saw a mammoth aircraft order by the airline followed by what many felt was a putting-the-cart-before-the-horse brand uplift exercise that left many underwhelmed. 

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Air India, Vistara Merger

No matter how many press announcements the airline makes and what it claims it has achieved, the proof of this pudding will only be in the eating. The flying public is only interested in an efficient on-time service which gets passengers safely from one destination to another on clean, well-maintained aircraft and a pleasant onboard experience. Although January 27, 2024, will mark two years since Tata took charge of the airline, this goal still appears a while away. Even as a business, Air India’s balance sheet remains more of a liability on the Tata Sons books. 

The coming year also promises to be rocky for Vistara, its employees and a small set of loyal fliers as it begins to merge with Air India in all aspects. Nonetheless, hopes remain high among the Indian public that Air India and its merged avatar will come to offer serious competition to not just IndiGo — which many are concerned will turn into a big bully unchecked — but also a clutch of overseas carriers who have chipped away at the Indian international traffic.

While few are willing to bet their money on Air India’s complete turnaround in 2024 itself, expectations are higher as far as India’s airport infrastructure goes. 

Two New Airports 

If all goes as planned, two spanking new greenfield airports are expected to be ready towards the end of the year in the country. One is the new airport at Uttar Pradesh’s Jewar — Noida International Airport (NIA), a 100% subsidiary of  Zurich Airport International, which is expected to be ready for its first flight by the year's end. In the first phase and for Rs 5,730 crore, the new airport with a single runway and the terminal building is expected to cater to 12 million passengers per annum. All sources confirm that work at the site is on at a frenetic pace and as of December, the deadline for completion remains unchanged. Viability remains a question mark for this facility as it will compete with Delhi’s existing airport, which too is in expansion mode.

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But perhaps the greatest reason to celebrate for the industry, Mumbai residents, fliers across and the country as a whole will be the coming up of a second and urgently needed airport for Mumbai — the Navi Mumbai International Airport (NMIA) — something most Mumbai residents have long given up hope of ever seeing completed. Getting NMIA off the ground will be a big achievement and a feather in many caps including CIDCO (the agency that has been struggling with it for decades) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who has taken a personal interest in the project. 

Towards the end of October, I made a trip to the site to find that not only is the new facility coming up at a total cost of Rs  19,646 crores for the first phase but it is in some kind of breathless race towards completion (post the general elections)  by December 2024 (the latest deadline in a long list of missed ones!) and perhaps in close competition with the NIA in Uttar Pradesh. 

Close to 8,000 workers are on the job at site and the project was 42% complete on the day of this writer’s visit. NMIA will function with one terminal building of over 2 lakh square meters and will cater to 20 million passengers per annum, with one full-length runway and one parallel taxiway with 42 aircraft maintenance and parking stands.  Traffic triggers will lead to further construction of more terminals — four at full capacity — and an increase in capacity in response to demand with the final handling capacity at 90 million passengers per annum. 

If these two new airports will add excitement on the ground, all eyes are on Adani Airport Holdings Limited to inject new energy into some of the smaller airports that they took over in the latest round of privatisation, of which only Ahmedabad — the group’s home base and therefore the favoured one — has seen a discernible improvement. Others remain works in progress.

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