Over the last decade, even as India’s air passenger traffic more than doubled, the pecking order of the top air routes on which people travel has largely stayed the same, with sectors such as Delhi-Mumbai-Delhi, Delhi-Bengaluru-Delhi and Mumbai-Bengaluru-Mumbai continuing to top the routes ranked in terms of number of seats deployed. Routes such as Delhi-Pune-Delhi have, however, climbed from the fifteenth place in 2007 to the sixth place in 2017 while the Delhi-Kolkata-Delhi route scaled up to the fourth spot in 2017 from seventh in 2007, according to data sourced from civil aviation research firm OAG. The Delhi-Lucknow-Delhi route climbed four places from the seventeenth rank in 2007 to twelfth in 2017.
Incidentally, while many of the sectors did not see significant changes in their standings, the absolute number of seats deployed on each of the sectors has grown over the past ten years. However, certain routes such as Delhi-Kolkata-Delhi, Delhi-Pune-Delhi, Delhi-Ahmedabad-Delhi, Delhi-Lucknow-Delhi and Delhi-Hyderabad-Delhi, which witnessed a sluggish growth till 2014, witnessed a spike in the number of seats allocated in the following three years.
The routes that moved down the pecking order include the Mumbai-Chennai-Mumbai route, down from the third the highest number of seats in 2007 to the tenth place in 2017, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad-Mumbai sector (down from eighth in 2007 to the fifteenth place in 2017) and the Mumbai-Kolkata-Mumbai sector (from twelfth place to the seventeenth).
OAG provided The Indian Express with a list of top 17 routes operated by Indian airlines, domestic and international, in terms of seats deployed which, while not being the same as the actual passengers flown, is a factor of growth in passenger traffic. The only international destination in the top 17 was the Dubai route. Not only did the top order remain largely the same but trunk routes also continued to contribute a substantial share to the total number of seats deployed.
According to the data for 17 sectors, airlines allocated nearly 47 per cent of the seats to the top five sectors in 2017, slightly higher than 43 per cent in 2007. Official government data has showed that India’s annual air passenger traffic more than doubled to over 11 crores in 2017 from around four crore in 2007.
Notwithstanding the fact that top order remained the same and certain sectors saw a sharp ascension in ranking, there were some routes where ramping up of capacity did not happen as rapidly as other sectors resulting in them plummeting in the rankings. Notably, these primarily include sectors involving the congested Mumbai airport.
Apart from the Mumbai-Dubai-Mumbai route, none of the other routes involving the financial capital of India has seen an increase in ranking. The Mumbai-Chennai-Mumbai route, the Mumbai-Ahmedabad-Mumbai route and the Mumbai-Kolkata-Mumbai route fell down the order.
The total number of seats on the Delhi-Ahmedabad-Delhi route increased from around 12.62 lakh in 2007 to 13.71 lakh in 2014. After that, the number of seats rose sharply to 16.72 lakh in 2015, 21.36 lakh in 2016 and 25.18 lakh in 2017 — nearly double of what it was three years ago.
While the number of seats on the Delhi-Pune-Delhi sector nearly doubled in the seven years between 2007 (9.74 lakh) and 2014 (17.26 lakh), it then surged sharply to 30.31 lakh over a span of three years in 2017. The Delhi-Kolkata-Delhi sector, too, saw a 25 per cent increase in number of seats from 19.06 lakh in 2007 to 23.77 lakh in 2014. From 2014 to 2017, it increased by 55 per cent to 36.87 lakh seats.
This spurt in air traffic growth post-2014 in many of the domestic sectors in the country is synonymous with the rise in number of air passengers across the globe which experts believe is partially driven by the fall in crude oil prices.
“The airline industry has a turbulent past. Buffeted by uncontrollable external input costs and regular assaults on traffic demand, it has rarely achieved even modest profitability. Where profitability has occurred, it was usually at the expense of traffic growth, inhibited by protectionist regulation. Yet, over the past two or three years, almost every facet of the industry has excelled. Profits are at record levels, load factors are high, yet traffic growth has grown off the radar,” aviation consultancy firm CAPA said in its sectoral outlook for 2018.
In addition to the sectors where number of seats allocated by airlines rapidly increased over the years, there are a number of routes where the growth was limited, and as a result, they have slipped in the rankings. The Mumbai-Chennai-Mumbai sector saw 14 per cent growth during the ten-year period. The Mumbai-Bengaluru-Mumbai sector saw a meagre 18 per cent growth in the total number of seats between 2007 and 2017. Notably, the top route of Delhi-Mumbai also grew only 37 per cent during the decade, indicating the Mumbai airport nearing its saturation, the higher base notwithstanding.