Comparing Airline Pricing across countries

The WSJ reports, based on a survey, that airline prices are cheapest in India¬†(HT: Nitin Pai). They evaluate the cost of flying in terms of cost per 100 km. The usual ridiculous comparisons that go with any such article are present in full here – they compare the per kilometer cost of flying to train and bus fares, and conclude that flying is cheapest (this reminds me of an equally ridiculous report in the Times of India which showed that the cost of India’s Mars mission was less than that of taking a bus in Mumbai).

A few thoughts on this report by the WSJ:

  • Per km is a wrong way at looking at air fares. In most markets (from my experience pricing air tickets and cargo), fares are set based on competition and to fill capacity. Notice that marginal cost of a passenger is really really low, so once a flight is in place airlines will do what they can to maximize their revenues from that.
  • Taking this forward air fares depend on the competition in a particular sector (btw, the way airlines price it, Bangalore-Barcelona is one sector, and the price of that doesn’t depend on the Bangalore-Frankfurt and Frankfurt-Barcelona prices. These are three independent markets and triangle inequality doesn’t necessarily hold. Just FYI). So going by the report,¬†India has a lot more competition compared to other countries in most sectors.
  • Now think of other large countries (you need big area for flights to make sense) and think of their income levels compared to India. Only developed countries and other BRICS come to mind. All of them have a higher willingness to pay than India.
  • Airline prices are thus a function of simple (elastic) demand and (inelastic – flight schedules are announced by “season”) supply. So once in a season we have a lot of flights scheduled, competitive forces push prices down
  • Given that it’s demand and supply that determines airline prices and not costs, in my opinion the airline industry goes through cycles. You have lots of competing airlines. Prices are low and they lose money. In the course of time one or two go out of business or scale down, and that leads to increased prices. Airlines make money for a while, and then looking at the supernormal profits you have new entrants and so on. India right now is going through the phase where you aer getting more investors (Air Asia, Air Costa, Tata-SIA, etc.). That depresses prices. In a year or so I would think someone like SpiceJet will go out of business and that might push fares up for a while.
  • There’s also the seasonality factor – based on regular travel to Bombay over the last two years I’ve found that fares in the monsoon months are half of the fares at any other point in the year. It’s a function of demand, again (Indian seasons don’t exactly tally with international seasons according to which schedules are made, so this results in flawed matching)! Given the timing of the piece it is possible that Indian fares in the monsoon months have been sampled.


Market Share Of Indian Air Operators

Not so long ago, we had a CAG report that discouraged giving sixth freedom rights to Gulf-based airlines, the argument being that it was reducing the market share of Indian airline companies, and was reducing the chances of Delhi airport ever becoming a hub. In that report, the CAG had also claimed that the granting of these sixth freedom rights was hurting the financial performance of Air India.

The Ministry of Civil Aviation, via the government data portal, has put out data on the market share (in terms of number of passengers and amount of cargo) of Indian and Foreign airlines for flights to and from India. While the data strangely refuses to mention the units for some of the variables, that doesn’t prevent us from calculating the market share of Indian carriers in the passenger and freight markets. The graph below summarizes this:



What is interesting is that the market share of Indian carriers in terms of both passengers and freight grew significantly between 2006 and 2011, slowing down a bit towards 2012 (wonder if Kingfisher’s demise adequately explains that). While this was the time when many of those sixth freedom rights (that the CAG was so opposed to) were granted, this was also the time period when privately owned Indian airlines started expanding globally and adding international routes.

This suggests that the reason for Air India’s losses lie less in the grant of the sixth freedom rights – which only grew the market, and more to do with the quality of service provided by the airline vis-a-vis both foreign carriers and privately owned Indian carriers.

What can also be seen from the above graph is that there is perhaps significant scope for expansion of Indian carriers when it comes to Air Cargo where their market share is minuscule compared to their passenger market share.