Air-India’s quest for attaining utilisation of 747-400 aircraft at the level of other international airlines - a distinction that Air-India enjoys with respect to utilisation of A310 aircraft of which it has 13 in its fleet currently, is hindered by several external factors, many of them beyond the control of the airline. Air-India’s average aircraft utilisation of A310 aircraft at 9.30 hours per day is amongst the highest in the industry worldwide, as per Airbus Industrie.
Mr. Jitender Bhargava, Director-Public Relations, Air-India, briefing newsmen in Mumbai to set at rest misapprehensions on this count, said that aircraft utilisation, as a matter of fact, depended on several factors. These include : routes on which the aircraft is deployed; flight schedules (including the ground time at a station); number of aircraft of a particular kind in the fleet; geographical location of the country in which an airline is based, etc.
Mr. Bhargava said that Air-India deploys its 747-400 aircraft on the US-bound route via London and for flights to some Gulf destinations. He said India is a geographically large country and hence no one city can fill up the 435 seats on each and every flight thus compelling Air-India to plan many of its 747-400 aircraft operated flights to go via Delhi - less than two hours of flying time away. The option therefore before an airline, placed in such a situation, is to either look from the perspective of aircraft utilisation level or revenue earning potential of a route, he said. Elaborating, Mr. Bhargava said that if an airline is to plan its schedule, keeping the goal of attaining higher aircraft utilisation, it should be prepared to sacrifice revenue. In a commercial organisation, however, revenue will, and will always, get precedence over other factors, he added. Use of aircraft to operate flights via Delhi and to the Gulf destinations gives Air-India a flying hours per landing average of 5.1 hours as against an average of 7 to 9 hours for Europe, US and Australian airlines and over 6.5 hours for South East Asian airlines. Only airlines in Japan have a lower average since the aircraft are used for domestic flights as well.
Air-India suffers from certain disadvantages with respect to utilisation vis.-a-vis. many other international airlines. India is so geographically placed on the world map that the countries to which Air-India operates (with the exception of U.S. cities) are a maximum of 10 hours of flying time away - Tokyo in the East and London in the West. The 747-400 aircraft cannot be deployed for non-stop services to New York/Chicago in the West over the Atlantic from India for commercial reasons as this would involve overflying London, a key destination on Air-India’s network, and inability to get full load of passengers from one point to another. It was, in fact, due to this constraint that Air-India had not asked for extra fuel tanks when buying 747-400 aircraft.
Mr. Bhargava said that flights can also not be scheduled to fly non-stop to Los Angeles/San Francisco over the Pacific from India due to the distance involved or with a transit halt in Tokyo due non-availability of fifth freedom traffic rights. Airlines of several other countries, notably, in S.E. Asia and Europe, because of their geographical location, operate several non-stop services with 12 to 15 hours of flying time to several destinations thus giving them a higher utilisation level.
Giving instances, Mr. Bhargava said that Cathay Pacific Airlines operates non-stop flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver and London with flying time of 13-15 hours. Singapore Airlines operates to London and other European destinations with flying time of around 13 hours; Japan Airlines operates from Tokyo to New York with flying time of 12.20 hours; and British Airways operates non-stop to Hong Kong with flying time of 13.40 hours. Likewise, Qantas covers the distance from Sydney to Los Angeles in 13.30 hours
The small range of average aircraft utilisation of airlines of a particular region is evidence of external factors viz. geographical location; flight schedule, etc. impacting utilisation of 747-400 aircraft.
Mr. Bhargava said that two other significant factors impacting aircraft utilisation are slots at Heathrow airport and night curfew at western airports when landing and take-off are prohibited. International airlines operating to India have no such constraints. Air-India operates its terminator flight every Friday to London with a ground halt of seven hours at London. Air-India`s flights to New York and Chicago are similarly on ground for 4 ? hours and 6 hours 20 minutes respectively to either overcome night curfew restrictions and/or to provide convenient departure time for passengers - both factors unrelated to Engineering. Faster the aircraft returns to base, higher the utilisation level, he said.
Mr. Bhargava said that aircraft utilisation level attained by an airline is thus dependent on several external factors, many of which are outside the control of the airline. Utilisation level of 747-400 aircraft of Air-India can therefore not be compared with that of airlines which are either advantageously placed with regard to geographical location; or have a larger fleet size; a flight schedule involving lesser ground time at transit points and more number of flights with longer flying hours, he stated.