IndiGo – India’s largest carrier by fleet and domestic market share, in a coup of sorts managed to get night parking and slots for two ATR 72-600 aircraft at Delhi – the busiest airport in the country. Turboprops like the ATRs are not encouraged at Delhi (or Mumbai) because they take longer on approach and to vacate the runway, which decreases the number of movements a runway can handle in an hour.
Both Kingfisher Airlines and Jet Airways had a strong ATR hub at Delhi but as Kingfisher Airlines faded and Jet Airways went bust, the airport prioritized slots for jets over props. Today with Alliance Air, SpiceJet and IndiGo – there are 14 turbo props which night park at Delhi. This includes seven ATR 72-600 of Alliance Air, five Q400 of SpiceJet and two ATR 72-600 of IndiGo.
There was commercial and operational sense to it. Commercial because there was money to be made for the operator when ATR/Q400 slots are replaced by A320/B737 or when new slots are doled out to jets instead of props. On the operational side, airports which earlier were restricted to ATR ops have expanded to accommodate larger aircraft. There also is the commercial angle for airlines. While earlier short sectors lile Delhi Jaipur saw ATR frequencies primarily, the traffic has grown to sustain multiple A320/B737 frequencies a day!
Yet there remain airports like Dharamshala, Kullu or Shimla where only props can land! Let us look at what these operators are up to!
IndiGo – the new comer
Currently IndiGo has two ATR 72-600 based at Delhi. One aircraft rotates as DEL-JAI-IDR-GWL-DEL-GWL-IDR-JAI-DEL while another one operates DEL-DED-IXD-DED-DEL-UDR-JAI-UDR-DEL. The airline operates an average stage length of 391 kilometers and average block time of 1:25 hours with the two ATRs which are based in Delhi. Average utilisation is 11:25 per day with 8 flights per day per aircraft.
Interestingly, the airline also has A320 family flights between Delhi – Jaipur – Delhi, Delhi – Dehradun – Delhi, Delhi – Udaipur – Delhi! The airline has started a lot of ATR flights in central India – which follow the traditional milk run pattern – which was tried (and possibly failed) by Jet Airways in the past. IndiGo has lower costs than Jet Airways and passenger numbers have moved north since then, so the airline has a better possibility of making it work but does not guarantee a sure shot success.
ATRs work well in the 275 – 325 km band and stage lengths which are longer tend to lose money, says my experience and analysis in the past. I feel that IndiGo will look at a major rejig of operations in Summer when fair weather allows longer operations and may need to swap flights to Gwalior to early morning to beat the excessive central Indian temperatures. I strongly feel that the airline will launch flights to Dharamshala in summer – which happens to be the peak season for the hilly state of Himachal Pradesh.
Alliance Air – the evergreen operator
Alliance Air is one operator which has really spread itself too thin. 50+ operational stations with just 18 aircraft! Alliance Air parks seven out of its 18 ATR aircraft in Delhi! It loves Delhi so much that one aircraft is just based on Delhi offering more routes from other cities! The aircraft is rotated as DEL-AMD-ISK-PNQ-IXG and back the same way ! Just for records, there is a direct flight to all these places from Delhi -> Ahmedabad, Nashik, Pune and Belgaum!
Alliance Air has the maximum spread of connectivity from Delhi, with the airline making the most of the evening time by plying to Amritsar, Chandigarh and Jammu – often being the last flight in or out which attracts traffic. This is a heady mix of RCS-UDAN routes and commercial routes. The map below shows how densely the airline has planned its north India operations!
The airline, though, has an average stage length of 359 kms – largely driven by daily flights to Ahmedabad! The airline operates 7.63 flights per aircraft and an average block time of 1:21 with an average utilisation of 10:12 per aircraft per day.
SpiceJet – the advantage
Average block time for SpiceJet Q400 flights for aircraft based out of Delhi is 1:43 while the average utilisation is 11:03 per day. The airline operates 6.2 flights per aircraft. The average stage length is 610 kms.
SpiceJet swaps one aircraft from Delhi base each day, for better rotation and maintenance reasons. Thus flights to Kanpur, Kishangarh and one frequency to Dehradun are services by aircraft which flies in from Jaipur, while one aircraft which starts its day in Delhi, moves to Jaipur and onwards to Ahmedabad late in the evening.
SpiceJet, like Alliance Air, serves a few sectors ex-Mumbai from Delhi based aircraft. One aircraft rotates as Delhi – Bhavnagar – Mumbai – Kandla – Mumbai – Bhavnagar – Delhi. While the turboprops are meant for a short hop, SpiceJet is using the aircraft more like a regional jet – to operate long thin routes. Delhi to Pakyong, for example, is a distance of 1139 kilometers but for SpiceJet – it is used to operating even longer routes with the Q400 – as its Bengaluru – Gwalior route is 1451 kms long!
SpiceJet routes will see some change when the airline starts operations to Kushinagar, later this month.
ATR’s have been in India for a long time. Alliance Air, Kingfisher Airlines, Jet Airways, Air Deccan – have all utilised the aircraft to increase their station count and connect smaller stations to the metro’s. Of this, only Alliance Air remains in action today! Alliance Air will soon be the only government owned entity and with the kind of slots which the airline is holding at Delhi – its valuation is bound to go up!
On a standalone basis, the ATR network is often loss making. TruJet – an all ATR operator has been making losses even when the majority of its routes are under subsidised scheme – RCS – UDAN. But for larger operators, the network effect of ATRs could turn out to be positive! The Q400 on the other hand is a different case altogether. While it flies as fast as a jet, the cost of operations is higher than ATR but lower than the jet. SpiceJet seems to be trying to differentiate itself with routes which are not connected by others like those to Bhavnagar, Pakyong, Kishangarh and Kandla. On other routes, it is trying to conserve cash by operating an aircraft which is cheaper to operate than the B737 but faster than the ATR.
That leaves us with IndiGo – which seems to have got a foot in the door. Knowing IndiGo for all these years, there is a high chance that the airline will push the door – one inch at a time to ensure that it is wide enough to push through! That could mean additional ATRs, routes and frequencies. All that it has to do is keep customers happy and they may not be able to see the ATR waiting for them thinking they had always booked the Airbus!
The challenge with turboprops in Delhi is the limited utilization in Winters as the airport is known for fog and reduced visibility. While the A320 / B737 operations continue with Cat 3 B systems and pilots trained for them, the same doesn’t hold true for the props! The destinations where these aircraft operate also has challenges in terms of weather and lack of sufficient navigational aids!
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To know more about ATR and Q400, you can refer to this blog my Vasuki Prasad Proud to fly a Turboprop.