The Story of India’s First Low Cost Airline If the Wright brothers were alive today, Wilbur would have to fire Orville to reduce costs
– Herb Kelleher, Southwest Airlines
If it’s on the map, we will get you there
– Air Deccan
The cool February breeze did little to soothe the fervor in the office of Mr. Mohan Kumar, the Finance Director of Air Deccan. Air Deccan had come a long way – from having to abort its inaugural flight on its Hyderabad to Vijayawada route onSeptember 24, 2003 due to an engine fire, to revolutionizing the Indian aviation industry by being its first low cost airline. And now, merely two and a half years from its inception, plans of an IPO were on the horizon to raise the much needed capital to support the company’s tremendous growth plans.
Indeed they had come a long way. And with only a few days left for Air Deccan to announce its offering price, Mr. Kumar pondered over the company financials repeatedly, his thoughts drifting over the many critical decisions to be made in the coming days. The recent announcement of the consolidation of two airline giants in India, Air Sahara and Jet Airways, further compounded his anxiety about Air Deccan’s growth projections and the timing of its IPO.
The Indian Economy
Through the wisdom of its government leaders and the entrepreneurship of its private sector, India has risen to become a major force in the global economy
– Mr. John Chambers, President and CEO, Cisco Systems Inc.
India is the world’s largest democracy in terms of population. India’s Central Statistical Organization estimated a population of 1.091 billion people as of March 31, 2005. According to the World Bank1, India was the tenth largest economy in the world in the year ended December 31, 2004 with a GDP in nominal terms estimated to be $692 billion.
In 1991, the Government of India initiated a series of major macroeconomic and structural reforms to promote economic stability and growth. In part as a result of this reform program, India’s economy has registered an average real GDP growth of 6.9% for the year ended March 31, 2005 – a total growth of 120% since 1991 as illustrated in Exhibit 1. Exhibit 2 shows the annual percentage change in key economic indicators in recent years.
As the Indian economy continues its growth, its middle class is also growing and is enjoying an increasing disposable income. Exhibit 3 indicates that a high proportion of the population has been moving, and is expected to continue to move, into higher income brackets. The service sectors have become increasingly important as a result of the growth in the Indian economy which has necessitated a need for greater connectivity throughout India.
The Indian Aviation Industry
These are exciting times for the Indian aviation industry
– Kapil Kaul, CEO, Center for Asia Pacific Aviation
History Before 1990, the Indian aviation sector was characterized by a high degree of Government control. The Government of India nationalized the airline industry in 1953 through enactment of the Air Corporations Act. In accordance with this act, the two air corporations, viz. Indian Airlines Corporation and Air India International, were established and the assets of all the then existing air companies (nine) were transferred to the two new Corporations. The operation of scheduled air transport services was made a monopoly of these two Corporations and the Act prohibited any person other than the Corporations or their associates to operate any scheduled air transport services from, to, or across India.
The liberalization in the Indian civil aviation industry began in 1986 with private sector players being permitted to operate as air taxi operators, but not being permitted to operate scheduled services. This air taxi scheme was introduced to boost tourism and augment domestic air services. A number of private companies commenced domestic operations as air taxi operators including Jet Airways, Air Sahara and Damania Airways. However, the carriers could not publish time schedules or issue tickets to public. In 1994, the Air Corporations Act was repealed and air transport in India was thus opened to the operation of scheduled services by any carrier that fulfilled the statutory requirements. The dormant Indian aviation industry has been revolutionized ever since.2 Industry Characteristics
Compared to other countries, the growth of the domestic aviation sector in India has been relatively resilient in the face of regular international disruptions such as terrorist attacks in various countries, health hazards and natural disasters. Indian Airlines flight IC 814 was hijacked on 24th December 1999 shortly after it entered the Indian air space. The hijacking ended on New Year's Eve with the death on one passenger only after India released three terrorists in exchange for hostages. Such terrorist attacks in India have had significant impacts on domestic passenger traffic whenever they took place.
Based on statistics compiled by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) in India, the sector maintained a CAGR of 15.67% from fiscal 2002 to 2005 in terms of domestic passengers. According to the DGCA, Indian domestic air traffic increased at a significantly higher rate in 2005 than the rates seen over the past 5 to 10 years (Exhibit 4a).
Despite the recent growth in air passenger traffic, India continues to have relatively high under penetration of air services. According to the Center for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE), domestic air traffic reached 20 million in 2005. For a country with a billion plus population, this amounts to an average Indian making 0.02 trips per annum which is one of the lowest in the world compared to an average of 2.02 trips per person per year in USA. While penetration rates are expected to be low for a country with significantly low per capita GDP, India’s aviation market is still well below where it could be.
India receives a fraction of the international tourists that smaller countries receive. Infrastructure issues and poor marketing have ensured that India remain a fringe player in the world tourism industry. Tourism accounts for only 2.5% of India’s GDP, versus 6% in Asia Pacific and 5.3% in China. In the recent past however, the government has given a much needed impetus to the tourism industry through various schemes and organized events. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council India 2004 report, domestic tourist visits in India grew by 19% from 309 million to 367.6 million in fiscal 2004. They have also forecasted that India would be the second fastest growing travel and tourism economy in the world with an annualized real growth rate projected at 8.8% between 2005 and 2014.
ATF (Aviation Turbine Fuel) prices and airport charges in India are among the highest in the world. Fuel prices in India are 80% higher (120% higher two years ago) than international base prices. Thus, despite high levels of efficiency and productivity and relatively lower manpower costs, air fares for travel within India have remained higher than for comparable international travel. For most international carriers, fuel costs as a percentage of revenue is 15 – 20%, whereas for Indian carriers, it is nearly 25% and as high as 35% for low cost carrier’s (LCC’s). Although the government has taken steps to reduce exercise and custom duties and has also removed the Indian Air Travel Tax (IATT) and Foreign Travel Tax (FTT), fuel costs borne by Indian carriers are still 60% higher than their international counterparts.
Airport congestion is a debilitating infrastructure problem faced by the industry. While India has over 450 airports, only 62 of them are in use. Moreover, Delhi and Mumbai account for more than 40% of the total traffic. This situation is exacerbated through outdated infrastructure, inadequate ground handling systems, night landing facilities and poor passenger amenities. Due to the poor asset utilization, only 10 out of the 62 airports in India are profitable. Consequently, the Government has limited funds to improve existing airports or to invest in new ones.
While the domestic aviation sector in India continues to be highly regulated, the government has in the recent past taken initiatives to ease the underlying constraints faced by the industry. It has agreed to partially privatize the two major airports of Mumbai and Delhi, allowing 49% of the equity to be held by foreign airports, up from 40%. Moreover, it has also facilitated the setting up of a new privately held Greenfield airport in Bangalore (74% held by Unique Zurich, L&T and Siemens Project). Exploratory studies on the modernization of the airports in Chennai, Hyderabad and Calcutta have also begun. The Government also reduced excise duty on ATF from 16% to 8% on January 9, 2004. However, India has been lead by coalition governments since 1991 with the leftist parties still enjoying considerable power in the government and support in sections of the society. A recent decision by the government to privatize airports in an effort to modernize them was met by a four day long nation wide airport employee strike backed up by the leaders of the leftist parities of India.
The changing regulatory environment in the aviation industry in India, a growing but under penetrated aviation market, the need to establish geographic connectivity throughout the country and the opportunity to capitalize on a growing economy are just some of the factors that have contributed to the birth of several new airlines in recent years including Air Deccan.
Air Deccan – The Company I believe that for India to be a developed country, every Indian should be able to fly
In all developed countries, the common man flies
– Captain G. R. Gopinath, Managing Director, Air Deccan
Background Air Deccan began scheduled operations in August 2003, with a single ATR turboprop aircraft, flying a single route between Bangalore and Hubli. Soon after, Air Deccan announced plans to fly on long haul routes such as Delhi – Mumbai, Delhi – Bangalore and Chennai – Delhi. In Captain G. R. Gopinath’s words, “We have major expansion plans and are going to increase our operations four times by April 2004. The airline is also going to break the image of a regional low frills airline and enter the trunk route market”.3Exhibit 5 lists the key events and milestones of the company. Exhibits 6 – 9 have financial information on Air Deccan and its comparables.
Air Deccan is India’s first airline to follow a no frills, low cost scheduled passenger airline business model. Counterintuitive to a general LCC strategy, which has only one aircraft type, Air Deccan follows a two aircraft type fleet strategy with the aim of effectively serving both the highly traveled routes between major Indian urban centers and the routes to and from regional locations. Air Deccan uses the ATR turboprop aircraft, in both a 48 seat size and a 72 seat size, for its regional routes which have lower passenger volumes per sector and involve short flights. On its trunk routes, Air Deccan uses the 180 seat Airbus A320 jet aircraft. Exhibit 10 has information regarding the current aircraft that Air Deccan operated as of November 30, 2005.
Air Deccan created history on August 25, 2004 by flying passengers to Delhi from Bangalore for a fare of only Rs. 700, virtually half the price of a railway ticket in many destinations4. The company offered 75% of the seats at rates ranging between Rs. 500 and Rs. 5,000 and the remaining 25% at around Rs. 7,500, which was 25% less than the normal fare of Rs. 10,500 on any other airline.5 Skeptics cited the reason as hidden costs, but regardless, this provided a means for air travel to be accessible to the average middle income bracket customer, something which was previously unheard of. An estimated 40% of Air Deccan’s passengers are first time flyers.
Low Cost Structure and Operations
Air Deccan’s business model is inspired by the low cost business models adopted by successful no frills, low cost airlines in other parts of the world. Air Deccan’s target customer base includes those who travel by train or other ground transportation as well as those who already travel by air. It aims to turn non fliers into fliers, and occasional fliers into more frequent fliers. Overall, Air Deccan’s flight fares are as much as 50% lower than those of other leading airlines in the country.6 To sustain these low fares, Air Deccan uses innovative techniques to keep overall costs of the company low. For example, in flight food and drinks are served for a price. An estimated 5% of the revenue comes from these in flight services. The company has also removed the business class section and reduced overall leg space on their aircrafts. This helped increase the seating capacity by another 22%7. Distribution costs are kept low by selling tickets through web sites and call centers. Additionally, Air Deccan increased its aircraft utilization by investing in technology to reduce airport turn around time between flights significantly. On average, an Air Deccan aircraft flies for about 12 hours a day compared to 8 – 9 hours by its competitors8. Exhibit 11 has information relating to Air Deccan’s load factors and revenues.
A significant portion of the company’s expenses such as fuel, aircraft and engine maintenance services, and interest and principal obligations under the terms of foreign debt and aircraft lease payments are denominated in or linked to U.S. dollars. In Fiscal 2005, 35.96% of Air Deccan’s expenses were incurred in currencies other than Indian rupees.
Growth Strategy and Financing According to Mr. Mohan Kumar, Air Deccan’s main competitive advantage is due to the fact that it was a first mover. While other airlines compete on major routes of the network, Air Deccan aims to increase its presence in underdeveloped areas and stands to gain a first mover advantage by setting up infrastructure in these locations at very competitive costs.
In order to help satisfy anticipated demand from existing routes as well as to add new routes and grow flight frequencies across the Air Deccan route network, the company has placed orders for the future delivery of 101 aircrafts. Exhibit 12 details the numbers and types of aircraft on order as of November 30, 2005. Air Deccan is also vulnerable to the aircraft design and mechanical defects because of its dependence on limited suppliers. Overall, the additional aircraft orders represent approximately Rs. 133.50 million in new amounts payable in the current fiscal year as pre delivery payments and deposits, plus approximately Rs. 44,056.62 million in additional commitments. To satisfy these huge capital needs, the management made the decision to offer 25% stake of the company via an IPO. Exhibit 13 details the proposed uses of the IPO. Around the same time, two other competitor airlines in the market (Kingfisher and Spice Jet) announced their plans for an IPO as well.
Historically, Air Deccan has tapped privateequity and internal accruals for financing its growth. Air Deccan promoters led by Captain G. R. Gopinath, hold 64% of the stock while 27% is with private equity (PE) funds, which include ICICI Venture Funds Management Co. that invested $40 – 50 million in January 2005. The airline is also offering 10% of its stock as ESOPs, which is being vested with employees in four annual parts. Most of the PE investor firms are not under lock out agreement and thus may choose to reduce their exposure by means of an IPO. Exhibit 14has the ownership structure both pre and post IPO.
Financial Outlook9 Due to the strong growth in the domestic market driven by affordability, a booming economy and an increase in capacity, it is forecasted that the aviation sector in India will flourish in the years ahead. Analysts projections are that airline passenger growth will slow down to 12% per annum by 2012 and 10% per annum by 2013.
Air Deccan gained market share from 6.5% in FY 2005 ending on March 31st to 11% in October 2005. Even though it is unlikely that Air Deccan will continue to gain market share at the same rate, management expects that the firm will further strengthen its position and gain market share of about 19% in the domestic market by 2013.
Fuel expenses are the most significant part of operating expenses. Fuel costs for Air Deccan were 38.7% of sales in 2005 due to the increase in international crude oil prices. Thus, Air Deccan’s fuel cost is expected to be around 35% of sales in 2006 and come down (in line with most oil analysts’ forecast) to 30% by 2013 with government initiative to bring airline fuel costs in line with what they are for international carriers.
Air Deccan incurred more costs on operating expenses and on repairs and maintenance partly due to the age of its fleet and partly due to the start up costs of establishing maintenance facilities. Together, these costs accounted for 39.8% of revenue in the six months ended September 2005. However, as Air Deccan acquires new fleet, these costs are likely to be aligned with its comparables at around 24%.
Administrative and general expenses for Air Deccan have been lower than its competitors and are likely to remain at low to moderate levels due to its low cost operational model. In addition, the employee remuneration costs for Air Deccan are higher (at 12% of sales) than the 7 to 8% for its peers. These costs are significantly higher internationally and are likely to go up in India as the Indian economy opens up more. However, due to its emphasis on cost reductions, Air Deccan is likely to keep these costs at around 8.5% of sales in the long run.
Challenges We will have more seats at Rs. 1 than Air Deccan at Rs. 500
– Jeh Wadia, Managing Director, Go Air
After years of dormant competitive dynamics, the Indian aviation market is witnessing a large number of new entrants in addition to aggressive fleet expansion and modernization plans from incumbents. Kingfisher Airlines launched its airline with a fleet of 30 new planes in 2005. The same year, Spice Jet began operations with three new Boeing aircrafts. Go Airlines was next in line among others. While growth in demand is estimated to keep pace, if further new players come in or if demand growth does not sustain, then there could be excess capacity that could lead to price wars, once fleet additions gain momentum. Exhibit 15 shows the market share figures for leading scheduled domestic airlines for October 2005.
Skilled labor has not kept pace with the industry growth. With aggressive fleet additions by new entrants as well as incumbents, the industry is witnessing a shortage of pilots and skilled crew. This imbalance in supply and demand may cause crew costs to rise sharply.
Starting up an airline in India is fairly easy, capital being the main constraint. Other barriers to entry are mandatory coverage of certain routes and the lack of adequate airport infrastructure. Execution can be a major hurdle for all the new players, due to a host of internal and infrastructure issues. The new private airline will have to compete against established players that have networks, time slots and a solid brand in place. Network would be a key challenge due to the limited size of operations and the regulatory requirements on route dispersal norms. Lack of a good network will also mean lower utilization of the aircrafts. Therefore, cost structures will necessarily be inferior accentuated by the higher labor costs. Moreover, infrastructure issues on landing and parking slots would limit choices on time slots. However, the Government seems keen to encourage competition and is addressing infrastructure and regulatory issues.
Despite the market having expanded at 27% in 2005, there is a consistent shortage in capacity in major routes, especially at peak flying hours. Thus, a part of the new fleet coming in could cater to this unmet demand. New carriers would also expand the market, either by flying to new destinations, or by lowering price points.
Many of the new entrants as well as incumbents are positioning themselves as LCC’s in an attempt to gain market share through aggressive pricing. Industry experts reckon that average fares will drop by 30% due to this increased competition. Already, Air Deccan has fired the first salvo by dropping its cheapest fare to Rs. 1 on all routes. But that might not be enough as Go Airlines’ Managing Director Jeh Wadia has picked up the same gauntlet: "We will have more seats at Re 1 than Air Deccan at Rs. 500," he has claimed.
So, is Air Deccan's low cost model under threat? The airline has a quasi hub and spoke route strategy that includes linking smaller towns with metros as well as intra metro connections. However, it does not provide connecting services. Experts feel that this strategy is responsible for its higher costs. According to an industry expert, "Air Deccan’s inventory and maintenance costs are higher because it has both ATRs and Airbus aircrafts – low cost carriers never do that. As a result, its cost per seat per km on an ATR is 2.5 times higher than it should be." But Captain G. R. Gopinath thinks otherwise. "In India, if you want the masses to travel, you have to connect small towns and cities to the metros. I have a twin cost model so my ATR fares are 60% higher than Airbus fares. Thus, I am not losing money."
But competitive pressure is already beginning to show in the industry. Last month, Jet Airways announced its acquisition of Air Sahara, thereby sending ripples in the industry. The merger of two established airline giants in India sent a strong signal to the market, indicating the possibility of a massive price war. Even though Air Deccan is currently by far the leader in LCC’s, whether it can sustain its position in the long run given increased competition and recent skyrocketing oil prices is questionable.
The Offering As the breeze outside Mr. Kumar’s office increased in intensity, it bought him back to reality. Air Deccan needed to raise capital fast and Mr. Kumar could only hope that the decision to do an IPO now was well justified.
The airline business is touted to be a tricky business the world over, let alone in an emerging economy such as India. And even though the future looked promising for Air Deccan, Mr. Kumar could not help but wonder if he could do anything else to strengthen Air Deccan’s attractiveness to both domestic and foreign investors. And finally of course, he was yet to come up with a price for the offering.
Jet Airways – Duetsche Bank reported May 11, 2005.
Jet Airways – Morgan Stanley report dated January 23, 2006.
Jet Airways – Morgan Stanley report dated January 25, 2006.
Jet Airways – JP Morgan report dated January 24, 2006.
Jet Airways – Morgan Stanley report dated March 15, 2006.
Datamonitor – Airlines in India, October 2005.
Datamonitor – Jet Airways, February 2006.
Air Deccan’s preliminary prospectus filing for its IPO – January 2006.
EXHIBIT 1 – INDIAN GDP GROWTH
EXHIBIT 2 – KEY ECONOMIC INDICATORS
EXHIBIT 3 – INDIAN MIDDLE CLASS
EXHIBIT 4a – DOMESTIC INDIAN AIR TRAFFIC
EXHIBIT 4b – Domestic PASSENGER TRAFFIC AT INDIAN AIRPORTS