On Tuesday’s announcement of the strike by Air India pilots being called off after 58 days would provide respite to the carrier, whose capacity on long-haul routes to the US and Europe has nearly halved, compared to the pre-strike period. The number of daily departures of wide-bodied aircraft, including the Boeing 777 and the Boeing 747, has declined from sixteen to seven, while seats offered on these routes has fallen from 10,000 in the pre-strike period to 5,400 now.
Last month, Civil Aviation Minister Ajit Singh had said Air India was operating 75 per cent of its international flights. Except Newark and Toronto, along with a few cities in the Far East, the carrier was operating flights to almost all the cities in its network. However, capacity had declined, as the airline was operating fewer flights, with 111 executive pilots. It was also operating the narrow-bodied Airbus A319 and A320 on a few routes.
Wide-bodied aircraft (Boeing 777, 747) are flown by pilots from the Indian Pilots Guild. These pilots were on a strike for about 50 days. Pilots of the erstwhile Indian Airlines operate Airbus A320 aircraft.
Before the strike, Air India aircraft flew non-stop to New York, Newark, Chicago and Toronto. Now, it operates flights to New York and Chicago, with a stop-over in Paris and Frankfurt, clubbing the US flights with its flights to Europe. Though it usually operates a Boeing 777 to Riyadh and Hong Kong, it is now using narrow-bodied Airbus aircraft on these routes. The airline is operating Mumbai-London flights only thrice a week, instead of the regular frequency of a flight a day.
The difference on capacity is also evident. Air India’s Boeing 777 aircraft have 230 or 340 seats in the three-class configuration, while the Airbus A319 and A320 have 120-140 and 145 seats, respectively. “The Airbus A319 and A320 are short-haul aircraft, ideally meant for two-three hour flights. There would be a penalty on the load if these are flown to Hong Kong, which is about five-and-a half-hours away,” said a senior airline captain.
He added the airline would be able to carry just 85-90 passengers on an Airbus A319 on a Delhi-Hong Kong flight.
“We have maintained our schedules, but that’s on paper. In reality, capacity has fallen by a third,” said a senior airline executive.
Before the strike began, Air India flew 14,000 passengers on international routes. The figure has now declined to 12,600. The carrier flies narrow-bodied Airbus aircraft to Southeast Asia and the Gulf region. While the number of passengers flown on narrow-bodied aircraft has increased, the number of daily passengers on Boeing 777 or 747 has dropped from 7,000 to 4,200.
Air India earns about Rs 22 crore from international flights daily. “Before the strike, our revenue and the number of passengers were growing 20 per cent. These have grown in May and June as well, but this is a mere five per cent growth. There is clearly a loss,” a source said.