Indian airlines to add new jets in booming aviation market

Hyderabad: Indian airlines Jet Airways (India) Ltd, SpiceJet Ltd and AirAsia India are planning to add new jets to their fleets as they look to expand in the world’s fastest-growing aviation market, the carriers said on Thursday, March 8 2018.

Domestic Indian passenger traffic increased by 17.9% in January from a year earlier, marking the 41st consecutive month of double-digit growth, the International Air Transport Association said in a monthly update released on Thursday.

Civil aviation secretary Rajiv Nayan Choubey said as long as oil prices remained below $80 per barrel, he expected the Indian aviation market to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 15% for the next 20 years or so.

“We are committed to ensure that new airports are built, better air space management services are provided, so that there is no congestion in the skies,” Choubey said at the Wings India airshow.

Indian airlines are scrambling to add more jets to meet demand for more domestic and international flights, making it one of the most targeted sales markets for jet manufacturers Airbus SE and Boeing Co.

“The growth of the domestic Indian (aviation) market is the highest in the world,” said Dinesh Keskar senior vice president of sales (Asia Pacific and India) at Boeing. “Every segment of traffic in and out of India is going to grow for the next 20 years.”

Boeing said in July it expected Indian airlines to order up to 2,100 new aircraft worth $290 billion over the next 20 years, calling it the highest-ever forecast for Asia’s third-largest economy.

Jet Airways hopes to close a deal to buy another 75 narrow-body jets by the end of March, its CEO Vinay Dube told reporters on the sidelines of the airshow. The airline last year finalized a deal to buy a separate 75 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft and said it was in “serious talks” for 75 more.

Dube said it would finalize the deal with one of the plane manufacturers, alluding to Boeing or Airbus.

AirAsia India is looking to expand its fleet to 60 jets from the current 14 over the next five years, a spokeswoman said. The airline’s parent, AirAsia Bhd, said in January it was considering an IPO of the Indian arm.

Indian low-cost carrier SpiceJet said in July it had signed a provisional deal to buy 40 Boeing 737 MAX 10 jets.

IndiGo’s engine nightmare: 3 in-air failures, 69 replacements in 18 months

India’s largest airline IndiGo, which flies four out of every 10 Indians, has had to replace Pratt & Whitney engines on its 32 A320 Neo aircraft at least 69 times in the period May 2016-November 2017. This is an astonishingly high number that raises a question mark over passenger safety in Indian skies. On an average, a fleet of 100 aircraft requires about 40 such engine changes/replacements in a 3-year period.

IndiGo says these are related to non-detection of chip, carbon seal lining or combustor chamber lining in Pratt & Whitney 1100 series engines. The airline calls these engine ‘glitches’ and ‘non-safety’ issues. Indigo’s boroscopic tests (which are used to test defects or imperfections through visual inspection by a boroscope of aircraft engines and gas turbines, etc) detected these anomalies in 69 instances. As per practice, the defective engines were replaced with other engines. Such engine replacement is typically done overnight. After the replacement, the defective engine is sent to the manufacturer to fix the problem. The planes continue to operate with the replaced engines.

However, that’s the least of IndiGo’s problems as it has had graver issues to deal with. Over the past 18 months, IndiGo has had three instances of one of the two engines of the aircraft shutting down. The aircraft landed safely powered by the second engine. Those engines have been replaced and the aircraft are back in the air.

Over the past 2 days, however, its Pratt & Whitney PW4500 series engines have reported issues related to vibration. However, the manufacturer advised all airlines around the world to ground such planes which have both PW4500 series engines. Indigo had 3 such planes out of the 11 such planes worldwide. These planes are grounded and one of the PW4500 engines is being replaced in each of these aircraft.

IndiGo has been struggling with the Pratt & Whitney engines in the newest A320 Neo aircraft ever since they were first inducted in February, 2016. Greg Hayes, chairman of Pratt & Whitney’s parent UTC, responded to the issue in the post-earnings call in September, saying the company remains, “on track to certify a combustor upgrade to incorporate into new engines.”

Yet, it is the continuing problems with the engines that raise concerns regarding passenger safety in Indian skies. Especially, when it comes to India’s biggest airline.

Airbus To Demo Skyways Drone

A live demonstration of a parcel delivery drone will take place today in Singapore. Airbus Helicopters will show how the Project Skyways UAV can hover while picking up a parcel, and then set off to make the delivery. The demo will take place on the National University of Singapore (NUS) campus. Another example of the Skyways drone can be found on the Airbus stand here at the show.

Project Skyways is one of four urban air mobility initiatives that Airbus is pursuing. The second is CityAirbus, a multi-passenger, self-piloted battery-powered VTOL vehicle being developed by the company’s E-Aircraft Systems unit in Europe. The third is Project Vahana, another VTOL passenger transport being pursued by A3, the Airbus outpost in Silicon Valley, California that is also known as A-Cubed. The fourth is an exploration of 10 relevant technologies being conducted from Shenzhen in China by Airbus and HAX, an early-stage investor in hardware start-up companies.

In Singapore, Airbus (Stand J23, Chalet CD17) has partnered with Singapore Post (SingPost) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS, Chalet CS12, Stand A01). The aim is to develop a safe and economically viable unmanned parcel delivery system for use in urban environments.

SingPost is bringing expertise in eCommerce logistics and delivery networks. “Our trial will involve SingPost’s parcel locker technology…and our long term plans…that involve drones and the vertical dimension,” said SingPost managing director Mervyn Lim.

In Europe, meanwhile, the CityAirbus demonstrator is progressing toward a first flight by the end of this year. It is an all-electric machine with 100 kW Siemens motors and four ducted propellers, that can carry up to four passengers over congested cities “in a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly way,” according to Airbus Helicopters. The propulsion system is now being tested at the company’s ground facility at Taufkirchen, Germany.

Airbus told that the first flights of the CityAirbus will be unmanned and include automatic takeoff and landing and flying along predefined routes. A ground-based pilot will be able to take control if necessary. Fully autonomous flight will be demonstrated later in the program.

Meanwhile, the first flight of the Vahana electric VTOL aircraft occurred a week ago at a UAS range in Pendleton, Oregon. It lasted 53 seconds and the machine rose 16 feet before descending safely. “In just under two years, Vahana took a concept sketch on a napkin and built a full-scale, self-piloted aircraft,” said Zach Lovering, the project executive for A3. “It proves that we can deliver meaningful innovation…to provide a real competitive advantage for Airbus,” added Rodin Lyasoff, CEO of A3.

A-Cubed is the company that Airbus chief Tom Enders set up in May 2015 to tap new technology and innovation in the U.S. He appointed former MIT, DARPA and Google employee Paul Eremenko as the first CEO. Lyasoff, a fellow tech pioneer and drone specialist, joined him. Within a year, Enders had moved Eremenko to Europe as the chief technology officer for Airbus, a move that caused some controversy and internal dissent with Airbus. Lyasoff became the head of A-Cubed. Late last year, Eremenko departed Airbus and returned to the U.S. as chief technology officer for United Technologies.

Although the CityAirbus and Vahana projects appear to be duplicative, Airbus told that they are complementary, and that regular exchanges have taken place between the two engineering teams.

Airbus also told us that discussions have taken place with a number of cities, including Singapore, that have expressed their interest in innovative, electrically-powered VTOL systems.

India remains fastest growing domestic aviation market in 2017: IATA

India remained the world’s fastest growing domestic aviation market for the third straight year in 2017 as economic and network expansion bolstered the sector, according to global airlines’ body International Air Transport Association (IATA).

Globally, Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPKs) — a measure of passenger volumes — rose by 7.6 per cent in 2017, registering “above-trend growth” that was ahead of the ten- year average rate of 5.5 per cent.

“The domestic India market posted the fastest full-year growth rate for the third year in a row (17.5 per cent), followed by China (13.3 per cent),” IATA said in a report released last week.

The grouping noted that such growth rates were driven mainly by the comparatively strong rates of economic expansion seen in each country, as well as stimulus from additional airport pairs being offered.

Such new services translate into time savings for passengers and have a similar stimulatory impact on demand as cuts in airfares, it added.

“India posted the fastest domestic RPK growth for the third year in a row, driven by economic and network expansion,” the report said.

In December also, India registered the highest growth rate of 17.4 per cent.

Many Indian carriers have embarked on ambitious expansion plans and local airlines have placed orders for over 900 aircraft.

Since late 2014, lower airfares have helped in boosting passenger growth — which in 2017 was also supported by broad-based pick-up in global economic conditions.

This year, IATA said that full-year RPK growth is expected to slightly slower than recorded in 2017.

“This is mainly because increases in airline input costs – notably fuel prices but also labour costs in certain countries – mean that we are unlikely to see the same degree of demand stimulation from lower airfares in 2018 than we have in recent years,” the grouping said.

IATA represents some 280 airlines comprising 83 per cent of global air traffic.

India World’s Third Largest Growing Domestic Aviation Market, Says Economic Survey

During the 2007-08 to 2016-17 period, domestic passenger traffic registered a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.89 per cent

New Delhi: With the civil aviation sector witnessing “considerable progress”, India has become the world’s third largest domestic aviation market in terms of the number of tickets sold, according to the Economic Survey. To connect unserved and under-served airports, the government has come out with regional connectivity scheme UDAN (Ude Desh ka Aam Naagrik) and flights on many routes have commenced under this initiative.

“India is the 3rd largest and the fastest growing domestic aviation market in the world in terms of number of domestic tickets sold. In 2016-17, annual growth in domestic passenger departures was 23.5 per cent as compared to 3.3 per cent in the US and 10.7 per cent in China,” said the Survey tabled in Parliament today.

During the 2007-08 to 2016-17 period, domestic passenger traffic registered a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 9.89 per cent.

“There has been considerable progress in Roads, Railways, Metro Rail, Shipping, Civil Aviation, Power and Logistics Infrastructure Sectors that is expected to step up the growth momentum in the short term,” it noted.

With respect to revival of airstrips and airports, the Survey said that would be “demand driven” and would depend on the firm commitment from airline operators as well as from respective state governments.

“Provision of Rs. 4,500 crore for revival of 50 unservedvand under-served airports/ air strips has been taken up with budgetary support of government to be completed by December 2018,” it said.

In the current fiscal till September, domestic airlines carried 57.5 million passengers, a growth rate of 16 percent over the year-ago period.

During this period, scheduled Indian and foreign carriers ferried 29.2 million passengers to and from India — a growth of 9 per cent compared to the same period a year ago.

“During this period, the domestic air cargo handled was 0.61 million MT showing a growth of 10.27 per cent over the corresponding previous year time period, and international air cargo handled was 1.07 million MT showing a growth of 19.02 per cent,” the survey said.

Why Pawan Hans, India’s national carrier, has a disastrous safety record

There are only two reasons, reckons a former captain who flew choppers of the Indian Air Force, that any investigation into a helicopter crash in the country can come up with: pilot error or bad weather.

“90% of the time, the hapless pilot is crucified,” says Sharma (name changed on request). “It’s amusing to know that this time a ‘sabotage’ balloon is being floated,” he fumes, alluding to the crash involving an ill-fated chopper of Pawan Hans off the coast of Mumbai on January 13, killing all seven on board.

Though preliminary investigation hint at sabotage — the possibility of flammable material in the cargo — nothing tangible is likely to come of it. Reason: 16 of the 21 crashes of the national carrier have been attributed to pilot error and the rest to bad weather.

“Blood is on their hands,” alleges Sharma, who worked for 16 years in India’s biggest helicopter company, Pawan Hans, in which the government owns 51% and the rest held by state-owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation.

“No heads would roll, and Pawan Hans will remain a flying coffin,” laments the former pilot, who worked with the Air Force for over a decade. The most damning thing about the latest tragedy, he points out, is the fact that the chopper was on its first off-shore sortie after a two-week-long routine ‘T’ inspection, which is carried out after completing 600 hours of flying.

“Imagine a chopper crashing after coming straight from servicing.”

Troubled History Pawan Hans’ killer past is graphic: 67 deaths in 21 crashes since 1990. Every crash reinforces its tainted image.

“Pawan Hans is a dangerous company,” says aviation expert Captain Mohan Ranganathan, who alleges that investigations after crashes involve cover-ups and nobody is held accountable. The chopper company is run by the government, which controls the aviation regulator DGCA.

“Any other operator, anywhere in the world, would have lost the license to operate and the officials would have been sent behind bars,” says Ranganathan, “But not in India.”

The carrier’s troubled history, point out experts, has a lot to do with its wretched beginning in October 1985, when it was formed as the Helicopter Corporation of India. Most of the two-dozen British Westlands inducted into its fleet started showing signs of trouble: engine problems, oil leakages and faulty sensors. Three years later, the company recorded its first crash in July 1988.

A Westland crashed in Jammu and Kashmir, killing all seven occupants. A month later, a Dauphin flew into the sea, killing eight passengers and two pilots. In February 1989, another chopper crashed. Next month, government removed 53 defective engines from the Westlands. In May, 10 more were removed prematurely.

In a 2015 corporate presentation by Pawan Hans, the company admitted to weaknesses it has been grappling with, be it industrial relation problems leading to business shifting to rivals or inability to adopt flexible management policies as it is a PSU. The list highlighted and gave an official stamp to all the ills that experts had been repeatedly pointing out over the last two decades. The presentation also underlined potential threats faced by the national carrier such as ageing fleet and losing market share.

Blame Game Though the disease was diagnosed, nothing was done to fix the bug. But that has been a grim tradition. Pawan Hans ignored warnings from the Kaushik Committee report of 1991 and again when the committee revisited its recommendations in 2005.

In most of the cases where the investigations are over, the report pointed out, pilots are blamed for the accidents, a conclusion easily drawn from the available evidence. The accountability of the operator is never assigned, even indirectly. The operating conditions and other external factors are also not considered, the report observed.

While maintaining that suspecting the capability of the pilot and blaming him for the accident may not be incorrect, the report emphasised that the operator cannot evade responsibility for not ensuring proper conduct of recurrent training, maintenance of proficiency and competency of the pilot for the task. It is possible that commercial interest may have forced an operator to overlook or circumvent rules, directly affecting flight safety, a major factor in an accident, but may not be detectable during an investigation.

“Operators need to follow the laid-down rules judiciously and be conscientious of their responsibilities and accountability,” the Kaushik Committee report concluded. “Since it is a sarkari company, it’s debatable whether DGCA has the flexibility to be able to exercise adequate safety oversight authority over Pawan Hans,” says Shakti Lumba, aviation industry veteran and former vice-president of Air India and IndiGo.

Since the company was never structured as an aviation company catering to civilian needs, public safety may not have been as important a criterion as it would be for an airline. Also, that the organisation is headed by an IAS officer and not a technocrat might have an impact on the way Pawan Hans works.

 

Lumba alleges that apart from the fact that an IAS officer doesn’t have any knowledge or expertise on aviation, which could lead him to be more mission-oriented, cost cutting and a sharp focus on profit might put safety oversight or culture on the backburner.

“Most of the IAS ‘babus’ come for a picnic at PSUs and go back after a couple of years and have nil accountability,” he says. Whether their tenure in the PSU is successful or not has little effect on their career path, he adds.

Lumba also rubbishes the theory of rotatory wing aircraft (helicopters) being less mechanically reliable than fixed wing aircraft due to their complexity. “It doesn’t mean they are unsafe. Choppers are being successfully used globally,” he says, adding that Pawan Hans’ dismal safety record springs from aging fleet, high cost of maintenance and wear and tear of the choppers.

A serving Pawan Hans pilot, requesting anonymity, alleges another cardinal sin committed by the company: cost cutting at the cost of maintenance. While revenue dipped by Rs 77 crore between 2014-15 and 2015-16, profit fell by just Rs 2 crore. “How are they maintaining profitability when topline has been eroding?” he asks.

The company’s balance sheet of the last five years lights up another grim statistics: maintenance as a percentage of total expenditure in 2014-15 is same as what it was in 2011-12 — 25%. While in FY 2011-12, it stood at Rs 108.57 crore, for 2014-15 fiscal, it spent Rs 119.88 crore: a paltry increase of over Rs 10 crore in three years.

“Look at the ageing fleet of Pawan Hans. The amount spent is barely enough to keep the fleet healthy,” adds the Pawan Hans pilot.

Security Slip-ups
A dip in the headcount might have also helped the company in maintaining profit: employee strength was 799 in March 2016 from 869 in fiscal 2015. Though Pawan Hans maintains that it has a bloated headcount — 20 employees per helicopter, way above global industry average of 5-6 employees per helicopter — many serving officials contend that there is widespread discontentment among pilots and engineers due to huge salary disparity between what they and pilots in private airlines draw.

“Which airline company has flight allowance for every trip?” asks another former Pawan Hans pilot. “You want the pilots to do the quantum of work that an elephant does but at a donkey’s salary,” he grumbles. What has added to stress and resentment is the one-year notice period for pilots and six months for co-pilots if they wish to leave the job.

“Which company would wait for a year to hire you?” asks the above official, adding that the move implemented last August has badly affected pilot morale.

It’s not only the staggering number of accidents that has put Pawan Hans under intense public scrutiny, there are other glaring security slip-ups as well.

In a span of just three years — 2014 to 2016 — Pawan Hans had 38 “incidents”. The report, based on the findings of an RTI by an activist, defines an incident as an occurrence that could affect aircraft safety.

The highest number of incidents, the report added, were 17 in 2016, though number of flights operated per year came down from 1.06 lakh in 2014 to 78,856.

The callous disregard for safety is not confined to Pawan Hans. It is part of the government-owned company syndrome.

For Pawan Hans, there is an urgent need for a deep cleansing of the organisation and fleet. But that will have to start at the top. Only the government is in a position to radically reform the nation’s biggest helicopter carrier before it crashes for good.