The last time you went on a foreign trip, either for professional or personal reasons, the odds are that you flew an international airline like the Emirates, Qatar Airways, British Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Thai, Korean or some other airlines based outside India. You may have had to change planes in the airline’s home country before reaching your destination. That’s going to change soon — a change made possible by the privatisation of Air India.
India’s civil aviation sector has come a long way from the days of Air India’s monopoly, barely functional airports and high ticket prices which made flying so costly that only the rich could afford it. After opening the sector to private companies in the 1990s, several Indian airlines started operations, numerous airports with world-class infrastructure and facilities have come up, the number of flights multiplied, and flyers have grown exponentially as flying has become affordable.
India is the world’s fastest-growing civil aviation market today, with around 700 aircraft and an increase in airports from 74 to 147 in the last eight years, and likely to reach 240 by 2025. Domestic passengers peaked at 275 million in 2019-2020, while international passengers touched 35 million. India is expected to either reach or beat these numbers this fiscal as restrictions on air travel become minimal globally.
The domestic circuit ramped up quickly with flights from Indian private operators like Indigo, Go First, Spicejet, Vistara and many more, like Kingfisher and Jet Airways, that are no longer operational. On the other hand, the international circuit into and out of India was, and even today is, dominated by foreign airlines.
All this is set to change soon, just a year after Air India returned to the TATA fold. JRD Tata, the first Indian to receive a commercial pilot license, founded Air India in 1932 when India was under British rule. The Indian government nationalised Air India in 1953, only to be purchased back by the TATAs last year.
Last week, Air India placed the biggest-ever order, estimated at a massive USD 110 Billion before discounts for 470 aircraft from Boeing and Airbus. The purchase was so significant that the US President, Joe Biden, characterised it as a “landmark deal” that reaffirmed the strong relations between India and US. The French President went further and said the order “marks a new stage in India and France’s strategic partnership.” Even Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister of Britain, where the wings for the Airbus aircraft will be manufactured, hailed the order.
However, the impact on India’s place in the International air-travel market is even more significant. Of the 470 planes ordered, 400 are single-aisle aircraft that can be used for domestic and short-haul international operations, while 70 are wide-bodied models that are exclusively for long-haul international routes. The recent Air India order, combined with another large order from Indigo for 300 planes in 2019, will put India on the international air traffic map. Winning in the international market is the final frontier for India’s growing aviation sector. The Gulf and European carriers are already bracing for the upcoming competition from Indian airlines.
The tremendous progress in India’s aviation sector was possible for two reasons. First was the government’s, especially the Modi government’s, focus on connecting all parts of India while making air travel accessible to the common man and its stress on creating infrastructure while improving the ease of doing business in the sector. The second and most critical was the role of India’s private sector.
The private sector played a crucial role not only in the Indian airline industry but also in building many of India’s airports through the Public Private Partnership (PPP) route. It has played the main role in training and creating human resources from the ground up, creating lakhs of direct and indirect jobs for youth. This is the finest example of how “Sabka Prayaas” – both government and private, can propel India.
Unfortunately, India has a bias against the private sector since Independence. While there’s a broad understanding that India needs investments and that taxes alone cannot supply investments to fuel India’s growth, the private sector’s role in creating wealth for the nation and eliminating poverty goes under-recognised, if not unrecognised.
While Western governments and even Communist China lobby for their companies on the global stage, the first instinct in India has been to suspect and attribute ulterior motives to any action by our government to support our private enterprises outside India. Hopefully, once the Air India transformation is complete and Indians see Air “India” everywhere on the global stage, our attitudes, too, will become more supportive of the Indian private sector.
(The author is BJP TS spokesperson)