Startup Akasa Air released a teaser on May 22 on its social media account. “A picture is worth a thousand words,” said the post. This was followed by two images this morning of its first aircraft, registered VT-YAA. The airline had initially planned to start operations in the April-June quarter but has pushed its start date to the next quarter as it waits for its aircraft to be ready.
The Rakesh Jhunjhunwala-backed airline is now a step closer to reality, having signed a deal with Boeing at the Dubai air show for 72 737-8 (formerly known as MAX) and 737-8-200 aircraft (high-density version). This order, placed in November, was followed by a brand unveil in December 2021. The airline received its no-objection certificate (NOC) in October 2021.
The last two major airlines to start operations were Vistara and AirAsia India, both joint ventures of the Tata group. Both took eight months to reach from NOC to Air Operating Permit (AOP).
What next for Akasa?
The aircraft will undergo its first flight — by pilots from Boeing — followed by a few more. The last flight is called the customer acceptance flight and is done with representatives of the airline on board. The airline pilots will verify all the systems: engine performance, fuel indicators, flow of fuel from one fuel tank to another, flaps, slats cruise and climb performance are all re-checked in the presence of airline pilots before landing.
The culmination of the acceptance flight leads to technical acceptance. The technical teams, comprising the airline’s senior engineering personnel, review the functional test results, identifying deviations between as-built and as-designed configurations, snag review and the entire documentation control. This is followed by another round of inspections of the airframe, engine, components and accessories to identify any undocumented problems or future concerns that could get the airline in trouble with insurance companies later.
The formality of Transfer of Title is completed before the delivery flight can take off. The aircraft is registered in the home country and the manufacturer is the owner of the aircraft. The title is transferred either to the airline if the aircraft is owned by the airline or to the lessor if the airline has done a sale and leaseback transaction. In the latter case, the lease documents are signed and a copy is sent with the aircraft, which remains with the airline for customs clearance and future legal requirements.
The aircraft will make its long journey home to India from Seattle. Customs clearances will be done in India with the DGCA inducting the airline on its register with a “VT” prefix and registration.
This is followed by a Main Base Inspection (MBI) where the authorities check readiness, and a conference room exercise where flight readiness is tested before the proving flights can start.
Proving flights up next?
The DGCA expects five proving flights before the AOP is granted. Proving flights are the last of multiple stages of a lengthy process involved in securing an AOP. The DGCA’s Civil Aviation Policy CAP 3100 stipulates that the airline “will be required to conduct a minimum of five flight sectors on intended routes, with a total duration of not less than 10 flight hours”. However CAP 3100 is a guideline and DGCA CAR Section 3, Series C – Part II allows the DGCA to approve the licence without a proving flight.
AirAsia India, which started operations in June 2014, conducted its proving flights in the first week of May 2014. The airline flew Chennai-Kochi, Kochi-Bengaluru and Bengaluru-Chennai on day one, followed by Chennai-Kolkata-Chennai the next day.
Vistara, on the other hand, operated Delhi-Mumbai-Ahmedabad-Delhi on the first day and Delhi-Jaipur-Delhi the next day to complete the five proving flights. These flights were conducted on December 4 and 5, 2014.
Representatives of the regulator and airline staff are part of the proving flights. Airline staff occupy the seats as if they are normal passengers. The service standards are tested and situations could be simulated to check if the response is as per the manuals submitted by the airline to the regulator. If no deficiencies are found, the path is clear for issuance of the AOP; otherwise it could be another round of proving flights for the airline.
In the past two cases it took just a week between proving flights and approval of the AOP. Jet Airways recently conducted proving flights to reinstate its licence, which was granted within days of the second set of proving flights.
The lossmaking sector is suddenly up for some excitement as Jet Airways aims to create history and Akasa, solidly backed by industry veterans, tries to get a slice of the pie. While the market has been a disaster for smaller airlines, the larger ones have been able to sustain — even while making losses.
Once the AOP is in hand, the airline can formally request for clearance of slots at airports and file a schedule with the DGCA, which when approved can be open for sale. While the time between opening a flight for sale and the actual flight is very short, airlines are keen to get going rather than waiting for loads to build up. To aid this, airlines informally request for slots and night parking, and airports, too, have this agreed — only waiting for the formality of the AOP before signing off.
Route selection is key to profitability or losses and the route space will be closely watched. After a long time, a new airline backed by a large group or individual is starting, amidst the backdrop of the Tata group appointing a CEO for Air India and looking at ways to consolidate its airline offerings, in a market best described as brutal.