One December day in 2010, Spicejet (SG) announced that they have concluded a deal with Bombardier from Canada to purchase 15 Q400 turboprops with options for 15 more. This came as a big surprise for the entire aviation fraternity in India. Nobody expected this nor predicted it.
Very few LCCs in the world operate a duel fleet, the best they go is to have sub fleets of the same type (B737-700 / 800 / 900 or A319/A320/A321) but not a different aircraft type altogether. However, the rhetoric of “India is different and standard things do not work for India” sealed the deal and explanation from Spicejet’s perspective.
It was a very different phase for the company compared to what it finds itself into right now, Mr.Mills had taken over reigns of the company post acquisition of Spicejet by Marans and was keen to expand in the market dominated by IndiGo and seeing a steady decline of Kingfisher. Possibly the top management then felt that they could easily fill up the void which was being left by Kingfisher from time to time as it went around pulling out route after route to support their holding plan until they stopped operations in October’12.
The Maran’s confidently went around stating that this would be the last change that SpiceJet is seeing in its ownership – which has its roots in ModiLuft, one of the carriers which started post liberalization of Indian aviation in early 1990s.
The first set of aircraft were in the fleet at the end of 2011 and started operations in the South with its first base as Hyderabad and next Chennai. SG ramped up its operations overnight, starting flights to umpteen new stations, recruiting people, giving growth to existing, which many a times made the quality of staff look pale over competition. As the Kingfisher crisis started, SG decided to open up a new hub in Delhi connecting to some of the destinations which Kingfisher had flights to. The idea probably was to cash in on the demand available and also to speed up the fall by giving some more competition to the fading airline.
The Southern Hub – Hyderabad
The decision to have Hyderabad as its hub was surprising to me, while Hyderabad had ample parking capacity and slots as compared to the other options – Bangaloreor Chennai, it was expensive to operate and generated far lesser traffic on its own as compared to Bangalore or Chennai. None the less, Hyderabad it was and later as it turned out, helped survive the airport closure of Bangalore – due to its runway issues.
So, Q3 – 2011, SG launched flights to Aurangabad, Bhopal, Goa, indore, Madurai, Mangalore, Nagpur, Pune, Rajahmundry, Tirupati, Trivendrum & Vijaywada. Of the initial lot, Aurangabad, Bhopal, Nagpur connections have long gone with Nagpur and Bhopalmissing from the airlines map completely. Interestingly, of these 12 destinations, 8 were new and must have taken considerable expenditure to set up the stations.
The Northern Hub – Delhi
SG launched its Delhi base, with flights to Amritsar, Chandigarh, Indore, and flights onAmritsar-Srinagarand Chandigarh-Srinagar sectors. Amritsar & Chandigarh were new stations for the company and the ramp up started in the north too. Soon, these were joined with flights Bhopal, Dehradun, Dharamshala, Jabalpur, Allahabad and much later Udaipur.
The Kumbh Mela was the high point for its Q400 fleet when it had up to 7 flights a day onDelhi – Allahabad sector on few days and thus it’s an irony that they pulled out ofAllahabad for lack of profits as they started restructuring few months ago !
While the northern base was being set up, Southern bases started to crumble, the launch of flights in quick succession without adequate market research, go-to market time; (Few flights and sectors were started within a week of launching (announcing them ) was taking its toll and thus started the great fall from grace.
The fall – Both North & South!
A plethora of factors led to the operations being unstable from the word Go! The Q400s were not as reliable as they were thought to be with many flights being delayed or cancelled due to engineering issues, which eroded the passenger patronage. Further, SG was slipping into difficult times because of its overall Blue skies strategy and launch of multiple stations and flights which were bit of a stretch for their B737 fleet. This led to culling of flights on the Qs almost instantly.
The airline did not even have the patience to try out a flight for two-three weeks. If they would find the flight unprofitable, they would just change the timings or cancel it. This did not help even a bit, because it led to customers being dissatisfied by the service and the cost of handling these IRROPS – as it is known in the aviation parlance, only added to its woes.
Patronage fell further on these regional routes, which were once touted to be the star performers, the stations from where money would be made, the places where the biggies can’t reach and hence the Qs would reach and create miracles. None of which happened or seemed to happen for a considerable period of time.
The route changes were so regular, that spicejet never updated their website, I wonder if internally they knew which flight would come at what time and I remember seeing passengers in Bangalore having three different timings for the same sector and flight.
The standard Network Planning tricks were being tried, more feed was provided for a flight, flights were converted from direct to triangular one, but none helped. Finally, they were simply dropped.
The network today
A lot has changed in the last 4-6 months at Spicejet. The new management has possibly been given ultimatums and they are going down to the basics. The concept of shrinking to re group and put up a better fight might not always work, but it certainly would be a good try and only time would tell what the results are.
Eventually, today they have a stable network on the Qs, a better On-Time Performance than before and hopefully would continue like this for at least one season to have confidence in the market.
The most popular flights are those which have been around the longest, 9W 338 onAhmedabad – Mumbai departing at 07:10, 6E 221 from Delhi – Guwahati, AI 849 fromDelhi to Pune are all examples of flights being popular due to their timing remaining the same for the longest periods of time. For instance, I think the above flights have not changed their timings since inception of that flight. SG could hardly match such reputation on their Q400 network.
Today, SpiceJet has 14 of its 15 aircraft operational with one suspected to be AOG at GMR MAS MRO in Hyderabad. Of these 14, 4 seem to be based out of Delhi, and 10 in the south – 6 in Hyderabad and 4 in Chennai.
Operations in the North have been scaled down and the below map shows the operations from Delhi.
SpiceJet operates the Q400 to Mumbai linking it to Jabalpur and Hubli and links Pune toGoa and thus has limited presence in the west. It’s as good as anybody’s guess but had SpiceJet taken delivery of the 15 Q400s which were on option, the next hub could well have been Ahmedabad before venturing into the East.
Q400s prime selling point has always been it’s speed, and when the Qs were inducted, there were news of how the pilots took off after ATR-72 of another airline and landed before it, flying faster and higher than the ATR. This made the Q400 look popular on paper, because it could do one sector more as compared to ATR. However, “India is different” and thus when majority of the airports in the north have watch hour limitations or absence of Night landing facilities, the additional leg most of the times is not doable. Where it is doable, (Eg: Amritsar, Lucknow, Jaipur) there is ample capacity across the day and on narrowbody which continues to be a preferred choice for general traveler over turbo-props.
As we look at the schedule today, the Delhi based Q400s are clocking an average utilization of 09:25:00 a day at 6.7 flights per day per aircraft. Average flight duration for its Delhibased fleet stands at roughly 01:25:00.
The network in the south is different than the one up North, with multiple one stop flights unlike in the North. Chennai – Bangalore – Belgaum, Chennai – Bangalore – Mysore, Hyderabad – Bangalore – Mangalore and so on. Coupled with a lot of flights amongst the Southern Triangle of Chennai – Bangalore – Hyderabad, and traffic available even across the day, the utilization of the fleet increased to an average of 10:55:00 mins. This also includes the three international sectors which are operated by the Q400s. Chennai – Colombo; which Spicejet cancelled, reinstated, changed equipment and timings every now and then, but now operated during the night on Q400 and flights from Madurai to Colombo and Kochi to Male.
Thus, the southern network clocks 8.25 flights a day per aircraft with average flight duration at 01:20:00.
he fleet based in North does lesser number of flights per aircraft per day than in the south. The average is 7.8 flights per day per aircraft.
The future looks bleak for some and promising for others. The next two Quarters would be critical, not just for the Qs but overall the airline. The new focus on On Time Performance should help and silently the turn around time for the Q400 fleet is pushed to 00:30 from 00:20 at the major airports and to 00:25 at the smaller ones. SG should focus on still turning around the Qs in 00:20 and ensuring that the buffer thus built up helps them absorb the delay which creeps into the system.
Entry of Air Asia and their growth in the south will be a big challenge, which SG will have to consider and take it up as and when it comes. After closing the non profit making stations of Nanded, Bhopal, Allahabad, Pondy and many others, its time they re-group and perform. However, I would conclude to say that the routes which they have now chosen are those which have been tried and tested and thus defeats the initial idea of deploying the turbo props on virgin routes and attract more travellers.