Asia’s biggest budget carrier AirAsia is set to make its maiden Indian flight this week, fueling a cut-throat fare war in a sector already reeling from losses.
AirAsia India is to take off on Thursday with an eye-catching promotional fare of 990 rupees (US$17) for flights between high-tech hub Bangalore and the popular coastal resort of Goa — cheaper than a second-class train ticket.
“The price war has already begun and will only intensify in the lean July-to-September quarter,” said Amber Dubey, partner at global consultancy KPMG.
The carrier’s founder and chief executive, Tony Fernandes, a millionaire ex-music executive who styles himself as Asia’s answer to British tycoon Richard Branson, is a hardened discount-fare warrior.
However, analysts warn that Fernandes could find the ride more turbulent than he reckoned in India, where no-frills carriers already dominate with a near 65 percent market share in the country of 1.2 billion people.
The company is to start with just one plane — less ambitious than the three-to-four aircraft first envisaged — but aims to scale up to 10 planes and 10 cities by the end of the fiscal year in March next year.
Malaysia-based AirAsia, whose net profit leapt 33 percent to 140 million ringgit (US$43.6 million) in the past quarter, is hoping to break even in India within four months through ambitious operational targets.
It plans to achieve an aircraft turnaround time — the time it takes to unload one set of passengers and board another — of 20 minutes, far lower than the 30-to-35 minutes of the best Indian low-cost airlines.
It also aims to have its plane flying 16 hours a day in contrast to the global industry level of 13, and significantly higher than the 12 hours achieved by AirAsia in the wider region.
The Indian launch of AirAsia “affirms India’s reputation as a lucrative aviation market in the long run,” Dubey said.
Even though airlines are making losses at present, passenger numbers are expected to triple to 452 million by 2020 to 2021, according to Center for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA).
“But if an unbridled fare war continues ... we may see financial distress increasing and the probable exit of one or two airlines in the next 12 to 18 months,” Dubey said
All but one of India’s half-dozen airlines are hemorrhaging losses, and AirAsia’s plan to pitch its fares 30 percent below those of even low-cost rivals will create new strains.
The Federation of Indian Airlines made a final appeal last week to the new government led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to stop AirAsia taking flight.
“While foreign investment needs to be encouraged, the same cannot be at the cost of the domestic industry,” federation’s associate director Ujjwal Dey said.
Fernandes, who calls himself a “disruptor,” tweeted in reply: “Some airlines scared of us. We must be doing something write” (sic).
Indian budget rival SpiceJet, which posted a record loss of 10 billion rupees last year, has cut fares on southern routes and blasted AirAsia’s “predatory pricing.”
Indigo, the only money-making Indian carrier, has followed suit, with promotional fares of just one rupee plus taxes.
“Indian carriers have a track record of engaging in unsustainable fare discounting and an unusual willingness to bear losses,” said Kapil Kaul, head of India operations for CAPA.