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'Bonanza time': Foreign carriers savour rising India demand as Jet Airways crumbles

FILE PHOTO: Jet Airways aircraft are seen parked at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International Airport in Mumbai, India, April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas/File Photo

By Aditi Shah and Abhirup Roy

NEW DELHI/MUMBAI (Reuters) - The grounding of India's Jet Airways is turning into a quick windfall and long-term opportunity for international airlines keen to scoop up nearly a million outbound passengers from what was once the nation's biggest airline.

Jet, which previously had a fleet of around 120 largely Boeing Co planes, was forced to indefinitely halt all flight operations on April 17 after its banks rejected the carrier's plea for emergency funds.

The carrier's descent into crisis has benefited international airlines in the form of rising fares and demand, data showed.

Fares from India to cities such as Dubai, London, New York, Singapore and Bali in the first quarter of 2019 rose between 4 percent and 32 percent from a year ago, according to Indian travel portal MakeMyTrip Ltd.

In the peak travel months of May and June, fares to London have spiked as much as 36 percent and tickets to San Francisco are up nearly 20 percent from a year ago, according to data from travel portal Yatra.com.

"For the next three months it's actually bonanza time for international players," said Ashish Nainan, a research analyst at CARE Ratings. "At least until the middle of June, the fares are not going to come down."

Due to rising demand, even before Jet's lessors grounded planes, carriers such as British Airways, Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd, Singapore Airlines Ltd and United Airlines saw an up to a 27 percent increase in passenger numbers from India in the last quarter of 2018, data from India's aviation regulator showed. That is the latest period for which the data is available.

India is one of the world's fastest-growing aviation markets, clocking 15-20 percent domestic growth in recent years. It has long had only two full-service long-haul carriers, state-run Air India and Jet.

Jet is now hoping to be bailed out by a new investor, with final bids due on May 10.


INCREASING CAPACITY

Before its grounding, Jet had the biggest share of India's outbound international air traffic, carrying 12 percent of the 7.8 million passengers headed overseas in the Oct-Dec quarter, down from 14 percent a year earlier, data from the Directorate General of Civil Aviation showed.


For an interactive graphic on Jet's market share, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2WvDQYi


For an interactive graphic on average daily flights by the airline, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2FeFDel


The total number of passengers travelling overseas with Jet fell 10 percent during the last quarter of 2018 even as the outbound travel market grew about 5 percent.

Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines posted a 27 percent increase in passengers from India, Cathay registered 17 percent growth and British Airways saw a 10 percent rise in the same period.

Cathay said the events at Jet combined with increasing demand for travel had led it to deploy larger aircraft with more seats on some Indian routes.

"In the long term we would certainly like to be able to offer more capacity into India, not just on our existing routes but by establishing new services to secondary cities," Cathay said in a statement.

Singapore Airlines, in an email to Reuters, said the Indian market is "very promising" but declined to give details of airfare levels or demand patterns in the wake of Jet's exit, citing a quiet period before the release of its annual results.


DOMESTIC GAINS

Jet's grounding has also had a big impact on the domestic market, with inter-city air fares to major cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Kolkata soaring more than 20 percent in May and June, according to Yatra.com.

The spike in fares is expected to underpin strong earnings for IndiGo and SpiceJet Ltd, which are set to report results for the quarter ended March 31 in the coming weeks.

"Domestic Indian carriers are the main benefactors, but I suspect if Jet fails to be revived by May 10 then Vistara and other airlines that ply international routes, particularly the lucrative Gulf market, are the main winners," said Shukor Yusof, the head of aviation consultancy Endau Analytics. Vistara is a joint venture of India's Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines.

Inadequate bilateral traffic rights between India and other countries, however, could be an impediment to foreign carriers' hopes of winning business lost by Jet, some analysts said.

"Even before Jet's operational shutdown, international capacity was significantly constrained," said Kapil Kaul, CEO for South Asia of consultancy CAPA. "We have now more serious capacity challenge ... this is unlikely to be stabilised in the near term."

A new national government likely to be in place sometime after elections end in May is expected to address the international capacity constraints, and once bilateral agreements are eased airlines including Emirates, Turkish and Qatar would immediately benefit, said Kaul.

"We would love to add more flights but we are at the limit of the allocation granted to us for traffic rights," Emirates Chief Commercial Officer Thierry Antinori told reporters in Dubai on Wednesday.


(Additional reporting by Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Jamie Freed in Singapore and Tanvi Mehta in Mumbai; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)