Opinion by Willy Boulter, chief commercial officer, Indigo 

The aviation industry has seen more changes in the last year than ever before, with the sudden pandemic that completely changed the way we work and live. Starting with the complete halt of scheduled commercial operations on March 25 last year, to resuming operations at limited capacity, in a new normal from May 24, the Indian aviation industry has shown agility and resilience, as we come out of this crisis. The industry has reached over 56 per cent of its pre-Covid-19 air traffic (month on month) in December 2020, which is a stronger country performance than most of the world, with the notable exceptions of China and Vietnam. India has a strong potential for further recovery in air traffic, owing to pent-up demand and a strong domestic travel consumption trend, further accentuated with the advent and distribution of vaccines.

While we have already brought in many immediate improvements, we are looking forward to continuing this journey in 2021, with some of the most pertinent ones listed below.

Digital and contactless travel

Airlines and airports will continue the journey towards a digital and contactless travel experience in 2021. The tech adoption which was expected to pick up pace over the next three-five years has been catalysed by the pandemic and will continue to evolve this year as well. We have enabled contactless travel by involving technology at every step of the process from check-in to boarding and beyond, as well as ensuring sanitisation of luggage, surfaces and aircraft at regular intervals.  Our aircraft, equipped with HEPA filters as used in hospital operating theatres, are already “lean, clean flying machines”.

Innovative avenues

Resumption of 100 per cent scheduled commercial flight capacity (pre-Covid) will be key for airlines to survive and move towards profitability and the new formats explored during this year such as passenger and cargo charters are here to stay. Cargo flight operations in “cargo-in-cabin” mode were initiated to support the nation to maintain supply chains for essential commodities, and this innovation helped in identifying opportunities to bring in some revenue through domestic and international charters during the lockdown. Owing to restricted belly capacity once operations resumed, cargo remains a focus area for our airline and we expect that “cargo-in-cabin” charters will continue until the sector recovers and even beyond 2021.

On the passenger side, we began to offer charter services, an avenue previously largely unexplored. In fact, looking at industry trends, we also offered a niche service in partnership with Accor Hotels – Wedding Charters – for families planning weddings during this time. Owing to concern about the virus, people are demanding more safety and seclusion, and hence we are certain that charter services, and products like double seat bookings, will continue to be in demand now and in the future.

Increased focus on tier II markets

As the international markets will only gradually open up, the major weight of the recovery in 2021 will rest on domestic traffic within the country. Airlines are placing a higher emphasis on connecting regional destinations, depending on traffic demand and the possibility of creating domestic connections and traffic flow, catering to train travellers who can be persuaded to shift to air travel.

Air travel recovery will be driven primarily by VFR (visiting friends and relatives) traffic, followed by leisure travel, owing to pent-up demand. These segments of traffic typically require connections between tier II/III markets with metros, or tourist destinations, vis-à-vis business travel which is primarily between metro cities. This pandemic has also given people a great chance to explore their own country, with a sudden boom in “staycation” and “workation” travel trends. India, with demographics that support high consumption trends, has the potential to recover on the back of domestic demand. Even a fraction of the 1.6 billion train travellers shifting to air travel can significantly drive the recovery for the sector in 2021.

In conclusion, the aviation industry will continue to evolve this year, with the implementation of technology, expansion of domestic networks, and introduction of innovative products and services, as it recovers from the after-effects of the pandemic. As Maxwell Maltz famously said, “Close scrutiny will show that most ‘crisis situations’ are opportunities to either advance or stay where you are”. So, the pandemic has proved to be an opportunity to accelerate future-readiness for the Indian aviation industry.