Regional aviation roars in India amid global decline Apextalk

NEW DELHI : India is leading the charts on global growth in regional turboprop flight operations with sustained addition of flights since the pre-covid year of 2019, data showed. The number of regional jet flights have risen by 4% in 2022 to 182,478 from 175,409 in 2019, according to global aviation data company OAG.

In contrast, regional flights declined by 33.5%, globally, since 2019. Besides India, central and west Africa, too, registered 4-5% growth in regional flight operations.

Graphic: Mint

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Graphic: Mint

Aircraft with turboprop engines are often used in regional flight operations for last-mile connectivity, and are a go-to option in India to connect short- to medium-haul destinations with seating capacities of between two and 90.

In India, the regional segment powered by a turbofan has a 12.5% share of the civil aviation ecosystem with nearly 88 aircraft in the overall fleet of Indian airlines including IndiGo, SpiceJet, Alliance Air, and Flybig, compared to the global average of 11.6% in 2022.

In 2019, regional flights in India were at 175,409 for seven airlines—Turbo Megha, Trujet, Jet Airways, Air Deccan, SpiceJet, Alliance Air, and IndiGo, according to the OAG data. While number of airlines in Indian market has shrunk to four players in turboprop-powered aircraft space, total flights rose by 4% within four years.

IndiGo has seen a sharp increase of 84% from a year ago to 89,854 flights in 2022 from 48,731 in 2019, while SpiceJet, which is facing a funds crunch to activate its full fleet, has seen a steep fall to 47, 703 flights in 2022 from 76,680 in 2019. State-run Alliance Air has also increased its regional flights to 34,559 in 2022 from 31,407. The size of Turbo Megha’s operations fell to 4,652 from 9,258 frequencies during the period, while Flybig’s operations stood at 5,710 frequencies in 2022.

Simultaneously, growing domestic aviation demand pushed the airlines to expand their narrow-body fleet, which accommodate around 180 passengers per aircraft.

“The demand is so strong on some domestic routes that IndiGo planned a conversion of some of its ATR operations from Hyderabad to narrow-body aircraft. Some of these routes are Nagpur, Vijayawada, Visakhapatnam and Pune,” an airport official said seeking anonymity. The trend is also visible in global markets such as North America, which is the largest user of turboprops with a 57% share in 2022.

As buses replace shorter trips, and low-cost carriers, which typically operate large aircraft with 120-220 seats, for small-city services, there are fewer frequencies operated by regional airlines, OAG said.

With airlines starting to revisit viability of regional route networks and reassess their environmental impact, the next few years will be uncertain for regional operators and manufacturers, OAG said on the outlook for regional flights globally.

“The aspirational Indian passenger is fuelling the demand from Tier-2, -3, -4 cities, and if you can give the right network and right connection, then the demand from the regional routes turns out to be sustainable and profitable,” an Indian airline executive said on condition of anonymity.

India’s air passenger traffic has surpassed the highs of the pre-covid era in 2023. Interestingly, demand has been rising even in a traditionally lean travel season. In March, 13 million passengers took to the skies, up 7% from February and 21% from a year earlier.

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