India’s aviation quandary

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It's safe to say that commercial air travel in India has grown exponentially over the past ten to fifteen years. Thanks to the rise of low-cost airlines and a burgeoning middle class, Indian airlines carry 10 million more passengers a year today than they did just a decade ago.

But for the all the benefits of accessible air travel, one problem that simply refuses to go away is the unreliability of service. Put simply, flight delays and cancellations are rife.

The statistics are quite damning. Spice Jet, the country's second largest airline in terms of passenger numbers, recorded average delays of just under 40 minutes over the summer according to, while just under 40% of its flights were either cancelled or diverted. Air India, meanwhile, the country's state-owned flag carrier, recorded average delays of around 25 minutes.

In fact, despite the fact that demand for air travel is increasing day by day across the country, just one Indian airline, IndiGo, runs at a profit.

In Europe, passengers affected by flight delays and cancellations are protected by the law and are entitled to up to €600 compensation for disruptions for which the airlines are responsible. No such legislation exists in India, which is just as well for the airlines. A quick read through the news reveals case after case of delays and cancellations caused by airline mismanagement. If Indian airlines were to continue operating as they do now within a framework which forces them to compensate passengers for disruptions, it is likely that a good few would not last long.

How to fix the issue is a matter of debate. To a certain extent, flight delays and cancellations are not unique to India. Look to any country in the world with a busy aviation network - the United States, Europe, wherever - and you'll encounter delays. But for many, India's chronic problems go to the very top, to the Government and to the mismanagement of the state's flag carrier, Air India. Corrupt officials are widespread, it is said, while contracts are handed out to political and business allies as a matter of course. The solution, say many commentators, is privatisation.

The privatisation of previously state-owned airlines has worked well in countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany, where ownership and management of flag carriers British Airways and Lufthansa were transferred to private hands in 1987 and 1994 respectively. Such a move could potentially remove control from corrupt and incompetent members of the public administration. With the airline operating as a private business without government protection and insulation from traditional market forces, many believe that incentives to improve service would rise and that the airline would be better managed as a result.

Whatever the solution may be, it is clear that India needs to find it soon. International business is growing, and the country is emerging on the world stage. With traffic in and out of the subcontinent set to continue growing, its aviation network needs to be improved drastically before it can be relied upon.

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