As India dreams of turning its airports into global aviation hubs facilitating international-to-international connections, the country’s largest airline IndiGo is in the midst of a rapid expansion of its international network with a flurry of new launches. Vinay Malhotra, Head of Global Sales at IndiGo, believes that the transformation of India into an international hub is already underway and is set to pave the way for significant growth in the coming years. In an interaction with Sukalp Sharma, Malhotra talks about the thought and strategy driving IndiGo’s international expansion, the Indian civil aviation landscape, and the growth potential it offers to carriers. Edited excerpts:
IndiGo is already the dominant airline in India and we have seen a spurt in new flights being launched to international destinations. Is the airline focussing more on strengthening its international network now?
In India, we are flying to 78 points, and overseas, we are flying to 28 cities. India continues to be our focus. Simultaneously, we are also developing more and more international destinations as well. In India, yes, we do have a promising market share. Outside of India, we are trying to develop more and more cities so that we can provide direct connectivity. The idea is that while we continue to focus on India, we also have to develop as many new international destinations as possible.
IndiGo mostly operates short- and medium-haul international flights, whereas your competition–Air India group–is also focussing on long- and ultra-long-haul flights. How do you plan to position IndiGo in that context?
We aren’t focusing on any competition from that perspective. We prefer to look at what we need to do. We prefer to look at our strengths. And we prefer to look at the fact that we need to continue to focus on our affordable fares, on-time performance, safety track record, and also courteous and hassle-free services.
India’s aviation sector is now effectively a duopoly of IndiGo and the Air India group. What kind of an impact is it likely to have on the consumer and the industry?
I think India is a very fascinating aviation marketplace. Yes, there have been players going up and down. But if you see, we have a huge potential as a country and a market. There is a significant untapped market as well. If you look at domestic travel, I think statistics say that 7-8 per cent of the total population is currently traveling by air. There is enough room for everyone. I think competition is always healthy. Competition is always welcome. But overall, I think every player must continue to focus and live on their own strengths.
The government wants to develop international aviation hubs at major Indian airports. How big is the potential and how prominent a role does IndiGo aim to play?
From tier two and three cities in India to an international destination, and from one international destination to another, IndiGo is already helping Indian airports flourish and create international gateways. Let me give you some examples. People can easily travel from Bahrain to Thailand, Dubai to Thailand, Jakarta to Saudi Arabia, and Tbilisi to Bangkok, among others. This is truly taking shape now. I think international-to-international traffic, which earlier existed only out of other airports in the world, is now becoming a reality in India as well. Hyderabad, Bangalore, Delhi, and Mumbai, all these airports are truly becoming global hubs. I think this is a big achievement for India and this is going to pave the way for a lot of growth for both airports as well as airlines.
How do you view the international-to-international traffic potential through Indian airports?
From the numbers that we see and analyse, it is very promising. And even if numbers on certain sectors are not skyrocketing at the moment, there is scope for them to grow, because a lot of people in the Middle East are looking to travel via India to the Far East. People in Bangladesh via India to say Saudi Arabia. And who knows, we will have people traveling from Jakarta to the US and Europe through us and our codeshare partners. So, the sky’s the limit.
Which are the key global markets that IndiGo is focussing on in the near to medium term?
There is a very large population that resides within six to seven hours of flying time from India. India, from that perspective, is pretty much in a very comfortable space in terms of providing connections both eastwards as well as westwards. We study very deeply where we can fly, where bilaterals permit, where our aircraft can go, where there is business, where there is stability, where there is economic stability, where people want to go, and can we develop and cultivate a market? We just started or are starting flights to Nairobi, Jakarta, Tbilisi, Baku, Almaty, and Tashkent, and reinstating flights to Hong Kong. Many of these places remained unexplored by the average Indian traveller.
There seems to be very conscious Central Asia and Eastern Europe push in your recent international flight launches. Is that the region you are currently most focussed on?
I wouldn’t say that. Essentially, as and when we receive more aircraft, we try to develop more markets, and find opportunities for people from India to travel to. So currently also, it is not just CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries. We have just started Nairobi and Jakarta, and soon there will be Hong Kong once again. So, at the right time at the right opportune moment, we are looking at all kinds of opportunities where an average Indian would like to travel.
The Gulf has been a key market for IndiGo. Are plans afoot to further enhance connectivity with the region?
The Gulf has always been one of our majorly penetrated markets. We fly, I think, 94 times a week into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. We fly close to 200 flights into the rest of the Gulf, predominantly into the UAE. And of course, we have Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. We feel that a couple of markets in the Gulf are constrained because of bilaterals or have restrictions. But wherever possible whenever possible, we try to continue to explore new opportunities to get people to fly to the Gulf from India. And if you look at our network, we are providing connections to the Gulf not only from Delhi and Mumbai, but a host of Indian cities. The idea is to connect more and more of India to more and more of anywhere in the world wherever possible.
Your new 500 Airbus A320 family aircraft order has options for the longer-range XLRs as well. Could you throw light on how the XLR is going to be a part of your international network expansion plans?
We are open to all kinds of options for the future, and none of these have been carved in stone. As for the XLR, we should expect the first XLRs towards the end of the next fiscal. And the idea is then to focus on a whole lot of new points as well, where currently people need to travel with a one-stop connection. That will open very many more options for us.
And these would essentially be Europe and the Far East?
The aircraft is capable of flying distances of over seven hours. Where we will go, I think it is still in the planning stage. We had already shared that we could look at the likes of Tel Aviv or Korea because the range of this aircraft is suitable for such destinations.
What about North America? Will we see IndiGo operating trans-Atlantic flights?
I think it is too premature to talk about us flying to trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific at this point in time. What is important is that we realise that the Indian customers are going to the US, and we try to offer services to them through our codeshare partnerships. We have seven close codeshare partnerships. Under the codeshare with Turkish, we can transport passengers to 33 points in Europe, four points in the US, and one point in North Africa–Morocco. We are very happy with the kind of bookings that we have started carrying beyond Istanbul to the US. I must stress and focus on the point that with 78 points in India that we cover, we are truly offering tier two to tier three cities easy, efficient, effective, and convenient connections to Europe and the US.
IndiGo is said to be evaluating wide-body planes like Boeing 787 and Airbus A330. When can a decision be expected?
I am not involved in the decision making as far as aircraft acquisition is concerned. I think when the right time is there, you will hear about it from us.
The correspondent was in Jakarta on IndiGo’s invitation for the inauguration of the airline’s Mumbai-Jakarta service.