IndiGo—India’s largest airline by fleet and domestic market share—had surprised the aviation community when it moved away from its single-fleet type model and placed an order for the ATR 72-600 aircraft in 2017. Soon, it also placed an order for A321neos, which includes the A321XLR as well. The decision to go with the A321 seems to have paid off.
As covid-led restrictions put a cap on the capacity - with airlines being allowed to utilize only 60% of their schedule -- airlines have benched their sub-fleets, utilising the aircraft based on the deal with lessors and managing to delay maintenance - some of the tricks to keep the cash outflow under control in these turbulent times.
Some airlines have also converted a few of their aircraft to carry cargo, with Spicejet even replacing seats on its Q400 turboprop aircraft to configure the aircraft to exclusively carry cargo, while IndiGo has dedicated 10 of its aircraft to carry cargo on seats.
The A321neo is one of the most in-demand aircraft in the market currently. For a mix of its range and economics, the airplane has turned out to be very popular. So much so that IndiGo has more A321neos on order now than the A320neos.
The A321 has been a popular aircraft in the past in few geographies where there have been infrastructure constraints, and additional capacity meant big business. Airlines in Vietnam are one such example.
While Airbus stopped publishing list prices in 2019, the last price release shows the A321neo costing 17% more than the A320neo but being able to accommodate nearly 25% more seats than the latter in the all-economy configuration! With a longer range and higher maximum take-off weight than the A320neo, the aircraft can be deployed on longer missions—hitherto not possible for the A320 family.
Little wonder then that IndiGo - which had deployed the A321neo to Istanbul, has more A321neos on order than the A320neo, with 398 A321neos and 332 A320neos on order!
All guns blazing with the A321neo
IndiGo - which has 24 A321neos in its fleet has been utilizing every A321neo now. Data analysed from Flightradar24 shows that this includes very short sectors like Mumbai-Ahmedabad, Delhi-Chandigarh or routes which have artificial congestion like Delhi-Pune, Nagpur-Pune or Bengaluru- Pune. The airport at Pune is currently undergoing runway repairs and has limited movements and operating hours.
Likewise, it also helped operate to airports in West Bengal, where there has been an additional cap. The additional seats which the A321neo provides make up for the lower count of flights. The aircraft has also been helpful to operate to destinations where the A320neo does not have the legs to reach. Likewise, the airline has also been operating charters with the A321neo - including to places in the EU and flights under the Air Bubble.
Interestingly, the aircraft is also operating to airports which would have load restrictions due to the weight of the aircraft or length of the runway, yet being able to carry more passengers and cargo than the A320neo. While the share of capacity deployed to market share has been hand in hand in the Indian market, the upgraded capacity by IndiGo provides an answer as to why the airline has been punching above its weight - at a point touching 60% of market share post lockdown!
What are the others doing?
Vistara - the TATA-SIA JV - also operates the A321neo, but has only two of those. The airline operates the A321neo to Dubai under the air bubble agreement, besides operating charters selectively to Hong Kong, data from Flightradar24 showed. Interestingly, Vistara also has two B787-9 Dreamliner in its fleet and the airline has operated a couple of domestic flights with the Dreamliner - a mix of utilization, crew familiarization and catering to demand.
Air India has 20 A321ceo in its fleet. While the national carrier does operate the neo family, it only has the A320neo and does not operate the A321neo. However, the A321 does give the airline an additional capacity - both in terms of seats and cargo capability. Interestingly, the airline has six of its aircraft grounded, few among the many which are grounded for lack of spares. Lack of funds is keeping them on ground. With only 14 aircraft the airline has also been making the most of its fleet with operations on shorter sectors like Mumbai-Aurangabad - where it has moved from daily flights to thrice-a-week operations and on Delhi-Srinagar - one of the routes which has attracted high demand since air services were restarted.
While IndiGo's decision to adopt the A321neo and the move away from its single-fleet strategy had raised quite a few eyebrows, the current pandemic is showing how an effective fleet strategy can help deployment. In the current market scenario, it may not help IndiGo make profits, but it could certainly help plug losses.
Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.