A version of this article was originally published by Knowledge at Wharton
Economic reality is reshaping India's airline industry. Just a few years into a third wave of private operators, the high cost of fuel has led to a number of mergers, including a high-profile agreement to combine Indian Airlines with Air India. Other issues, including infrastructure constraints, increased competition and wage inflation, have left low-cost carriers, such as Sahara and Air Deccan, with no alternative but to merge with larger airlines.
A new crop of airlines has sprung up in the last few years. Deccan Aviation, India's first low-cost carrier (LCC), began operations in 2003. SpiceJet, also an economy carrier, took wing in 2005. Kingfisher Airlines, headed by the flamboyant liquor baron Vijay Mallya, started the same year. Other newcomers include GoAir and Paramount, while East West and another old-timer, ModiLuft, have returned.
It didn't take long for the shakeout to begin. In April 2007, Jet Airways took over Air Sahara for Rs. 1,450 crore. Kingfisher acquired an initial 26 percent stake in Air Deccan for Rs. 550 crore. And in the mother of all mergers, the government-owned Air India and Indian Airlines have joined to form the National Aviation Corporation of India Ltd. (NACIL).
The main reason for the consolidation is economic. Both Deccan and Sahara were low cost carriers, and with the rising cost of fuel there was no way they could make a profit. Mergers with full-service carriers such as Kingfisher and Jet Airways were the alternative to closing shop.
The merger gives Kingfisher obvious economies of scale. It also provides an advantage peculiar to the Indian environment. Airlines must complete five years in the domestic market before they can fly the more lucrative overseas routes. Through the Deccan merger, Mallya hopes to get permission for international flights earlier than he would for a standalone Kingfisher.
Kingfisher says the merger has helped in many ways. Synergies have helped cut costs. Greater passenger volume has allowed for the airline to renegotiate agreements. Schedule integrity has improved.
The story is the same at Jet Airways, which was India's largest domestic airline by far before the Kingfisher-Deccan combination. It still is, but by a slim margin.
While the Jet takeover of Sahara set the consolidation ball rolling, the Indian Airlines-Air India merger attracts the most attention. The combination was inevitable considering that domestic carrier Indian Airlines was losing market share year after year.
Raghu Menon took over as chairman and managing director of Air India on April 1. To Menon falls the job of seeing through the two national carriers' integration process.
His first challenge is to put the organization's financial house in order. In 2006-07, Air India lost Rs. 448 crore and Indian Airlines Rs. 240 crore. The results for 2007-08 are not yet ready, but Menon acknowledges that the losses could be higher.
The other big burden on Air India is the high price of air turbine fuel. "ATF accounts for 40 percent of our costs," Menon said.
Plans to take Air India public have fallen through. "Our balance sheet won't allow it," Menon said. Instead, the company will turn to the government. Whether it will seek an equity infusion or debt has not been decided. Jet Airways, meanwhile, postponed a Rs. 1,600 crore rights issue last month for the third time and is looking for other funding options.
"The success of any merger depends entirely on the sensitivity and the maturity with which the management handles it," Deccan's CEO G.R. Gopinath said. "Mergers will succeed when the managements know what to synergize and what to leave alone. It has to be done with sensitivity, intelligence and commitment."
"The merger does have a lot of inherent challenges because the business models of Deccan and Kingfisher are completely different and, therefore, have distinctly different cultures," Gopinath says. "Kingfisher has the mindset of a premium service provider, whereas we have a low-cost culture. As the two brands cater to very different segments, it is essential to have very distinct, separate identities for both. At the same time, one needs to create a certain emotional bonding between the employees for them to feel part of one organization."
At Jet-Sahara, a first merger attempt was aborted with both sides threatening to sue. When the deal was finally signed, Sahara ended up as the "lite" version of Jet in more ways than one: Little of the old airline remains.
At Air India, Menon agrees that integration is a priority. But some things simply cannot be done. For instance, pilots and ground engineers of one airline cannot move freely to the other. They get licenses for specific aircraft and cannot jump to another without extensive training. "Indian Airlines' biggest aircraft is smaller than Air India's smallest aircraft," Air India executive director Jitendra Bhargava pointed out.
Menon and Bhargava are banking on the infusion of new aircraft into the fleet. "We have suffered from an image problem because our planes were very old," Menon said. "Today, some of our flights have only new aircraft. Ask anybody who has traveled by them. This is the real Maharaja service." The image revamp is also being aided by the new, private airports coming up in India.
Menon expects the new organization to benefit from a hub-and-spoke system being put in place. Indian Airlines will carry passengers from various parts of India to Mumbai, where they will be transferred to Air India's international flights. Air India is also joining the Star Alliance, a network of international airlines.
Joint ventures are being set up for maintenance, repair and overhaul, and ground handling facilities. These will be offered to other airlines and bring in some revenue.
Another big issue is external to the company: the growing competition in the skies, which sparked the consolidation and shows no sign of abating.
"I am not afraid of competition -- I welcome it," Menon said, adding that it will help Air India become more efficient. Meanwhile, new airlines are springing up in the domestic arena to compensate for the reduced number of players that consolidation has brought about. The older companies are foraying abroad, even to the West Asian routes that have been so profitable for Air India. And foreign airlines are landing in the country in ever-increasing numbers. Every industry faces competition. What's so different about civil aviation? "The glamour quotient of the industry does attract entrepreneurs and investments," says Gopinath. "But that alone cannot create a successful business."