May 28, 2024

The international cargo operations of two major carriers — IndiGo and Air India Group (Air India and Vistara) — are experiencing opposite trajectories despite both the airlines significantly expanding their international flight offerings over the past year.

During the fourth quarter of 2023-24, IndiGo’s international non-passenger cargo business declined to 6,848 tonnes. This is an 18.2 per cent year-on-year (Y-o-Y) decrease, according to data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA), as reviewed by Business Standard.

IndiGo executives told Business Standard that demand exists, but its narrowbody aircraft lack much cargo space after accommodating all passenger baggage.

“We carried about 3 million international passengers in Q4 of 2023-24, which was about 25 per cent more than the corresponding period in the previous year. Our overall weight load factor has also gone up, which shows that our space utilisation is improving. But it also means that we do not have much space left for non-passenger cargo,” an airline executive said. Weight load factor is the ratio of actual weight to maximum capacity on an aircraft.

The robust demand is underscored by data from the Airports Authority of India (AAI), revealing that a total of 571,895 tonnes of air cargo were transported to and from India in the fourth quarter of 2023-24, marking a 25 per cent Y-o-Y increase.

Aviation industry sources said that Air India and Vistara provide better service and their flights cater to more far-flung destinations like the US and Europe. In these sectors, the cargo business is increasing.

“Moreover, Air India and Vistara have widebody aircraft that have ample belly space to carry big consignments,” an industry source said.

Air India’s international cargo business surged to 37,569 tonnes in the fourth quarter, reflecting a substantial 34.8 per cent rise. Even Vistara’s international cargo business surged to 9,602 tonnes during the same period, a whopping 101 per cent rise.

IndiGo’s decrease in international cargo business coincides with a notable rise in international passenger flights of IndiGo as well as Air India and Vistara.

In April, IndiGo operated approximately 1,402 international flights per week, marking a 19 per cent Y-o-Y increase, according to aviation analytics firm Cirium. Air India operated around 956 international flights per week in April, a 15.7 per cent increase. Vistara operated 354 international services per week, a substantial 47.5 per cent increase.

An IndiGo spokesperson said: “We have had a strong year for IndiGo CarGo with significant growth in overall tonnage in Q4 (Y-o-Y), even though the international cargo business remained flat. We are confident of continuing the strong growth trajectory.”

Last month, for the first time in its history, IndiGo placed an order for widebody aircraft, securing 30 A350-900s from European planemaker Airbus at an estimated value of $4-5 billion. This move is significant as IndiGo, which currently operates 370 aircraft, has all narrowbody planes.

The airline is scheduled to receive its first widebody plane in 2027.

An Air India spokesperson told Business Standard that the airline is recording “significant” growth in international cargo business that is fuelled by a comprehensive strategy and several factors.

“Over the last two years, we have expanded our route network, having added new routes, destinations, and capacity. This provides businesses with greater international connectivity for the goods. Deploying additional widebody aircraft on some domestic routes has opened up a greater belly for cargo space on passenger flights. We have also strengthened our distribution network globally with Road Feeder Service (RFS) and interline partnerships, solidifying our presence in key international markets,” the spokesperson noted.

Air India has actively improved engagement with freight forwarders and shippers through “enhanced” communication and service levels.

“Our recent investments in advanced IT capabilities, including electronic data interchange (EDI), facilitate faster processing and better shipment tracking,” the spokesperson said.

A Vistara spokesperson told Business Standard that the addition of more widebody aircraft to its fleet has resulted in increased capacity per flight compared to narrowbody aircraft.

“This has also enhanced flexibility and efficiency in meeting the rising air cargo demand. This is especially on long-haul routes connecting India like London Heathrow, Paris and Frankfurt. Leveraging our presence in Europe, we have partnered with several trucking companies to strengthen our cargo network beyond the cities we fly to,” the spokesperson said.

“We are also working closely with our interline partners to make inroads into key markets in the United States. Moreover, we have been focusing on shipments of high-density cargo enabling us to accommodate more inflow of cargo volumes from the market. This has optimised our operations,” the spokesperson added.

First Published: May 12 2024 | 10:56 PM IST