Ajay Singh is the Chairman and Managing Director of SpiceJet, India's leading low-cost carrier which recently announced new long-haul routes to connect Delhi and Mumbai with London from December 4. In this interview, he explains how the airline is bucking global aviation trends and what lies in store for the Covid-hit industry.
Despite the headwinds of Covid, what does SpiceJet′s UK launch signify?
The Covid pandemic is the worst ever crisis to hit the aviation sector. The Indian aviation industry has taken a huge hit and has suffered terribly. Globally, some companies have stood out during this pandemic by their sheer grit, determination, strong leadership, vision and innovation. Team SpiceJet has shown remarkable resilience to deal with this crisis situation. While some of the biggest airlines across the world have been forced to shut operations, retrench employees, drastically cut down their network, SpiceJet has been one of the companies that has taken this crisis head-on and emerged stronger than ever with its cargo business, innovative product line-up, service offerings and network expansion. In the last few months, we have repatriated over 104,000 Indians from across the globe including Amsterdam, Toronto, Moscow, Rome and London while also operating wide-body passenger and cargo flights.
SpiceJet's announcement to launch London flights is not just a historic day for the airline but for the entire Indian aviation fraternity. SpiceJet will be the first Indian low-cost carrier to connect Delhi and Mumbai with London Heathrow with non-stop flights. Our UK launch and our performance during the last six months clearly signifies our positive attitude and our ability to find opportunities in adversity. The UK is one of the most preferred travel destinations for Indian citizens. In 2019, it witnessed close to 700,000 visits from India. We are more than thrilled to explore this opportunity and expect a tremendous response from the travellers.
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What is the secret of the airline′s success in a tough marketplace?
We strongly believe in the saying that tough times don't last, tough people do. There wasn't a single day during the lockdown when SpiceJet planes did not take off. Since the lockdown began, SpiceJet has operated close to 9,000 cargo flights and carried over 60,000 tons of cargo - more than double of all Indian domestic airlines combined together. This grit, determination, self-belief is the USP of each SpiceJetter. UK flights are a huge milestone for us and we have been preparing for them for a long time. London will be SpiceJet's 10th international destination. Our USP, of course, is also the SpiceJet brand and the unparalleled domestic network that we have in India that none of the other airlines operating from the UK can match. Passengers arriving in Delhi and Mumbai on our flights from London can connect to over 50 domestic destinations on our network, which is a huge advantage for us. We are India's largest regional operator and we operate over 50 daily flights to smaller cities and towns, which no other airline in India connects. Add to that, our convenient flight timings, our attractive fares and our state-of-the art brand new A330-900 Neo aircraft should suit the convenience of our passengers perfectly.
How important is the Indian diaspora base for your UK expansion?
The UK has a large Indian diaspora, estimated to be almost 1.5 million strong, who have extensively contributed in the areas of academia, literature, arts, medicines, science, sports, industry, business and politics. They also act as a link between the two countries. They are an integral part of the India-UK relations and an asset for both the countries. Thousands of them travel between the two countries every year, thereby making the community one of our most valued customers. We are certain that our weekly flights between London-Delhi and London-Mumbai will give them additional comfort and flexibility. What will immensely appeal to the Indian diaspora and what is also a huge advantage to us is our unmatched domestic network. The kind of connectivity we provide to the smaller towns and cities of India - the quickest and easiest way for the Indian diaspora to reach to their families in different parts of India.
What is your outlook for the aviation sector, in India and globally?
India is one of the largest aviation markets in the world. Our aviation sector has grown by leaps and bounds in the last 10 years. India's aviation sector, with a huge pent up demand and a fall in ATF prices, is waiting to bounce back. We remain extremely optimistic about the future of Indian aviation. We are now steadily moving towards pre-Covid levels of passenger airline operations, with people gradually opening up to air travel. SpiceJet has consistently outperformed the industry and we continue to do so. For 58 months-in-a-row till February 2020 when Covid hit us, SpiceJet flew with over 90 per cent load factors in the Indian aviation market - which is a global aviation record. Since flight operations resumed in May, SpiceJet has again recorded highest occupancy in Indian domestic market. In August 2020, we had the highest loads of 76 per cent. The Indian aviation sector has terrific potential and can be the bright spot of the economy without a doubt.
How do you see the airport testing and air bubble arrangements working out for airlines?
I must say the Indian government has done a fantastic job in handling this crisis situation and has done a lot to help various sectors. India has entered into bilateral air bubble arrangements with several countries to amplify international air connectivity. With the help of this arrangement, more than 190,700 Indian citizens have been repatriated and still counting since the beginning of Vande Bharat flights. Considering the above developments, we are extremely confident about the speedy recovery of Indian aviation.
What are some of SpiceJet′s other plans for the future?
Launching our London operations is just a first step in the direction of cherishing our dream of providing non-stop connectivity from India to different parts of the world and strengthening our own airport hubs. We believe there are significant opportunities on long-haul operations and while London is our first long-haul destination, we aim to announce more such flights in the future to some of the key markets across the globe. As a part of the long-term growth strategy, SpiceJet has established strong independent business verticals and secured alternative revenue streams. Moving beyond “pure aviation” and a passenger airline company, SpiceJet is now building itself as a strong “air transport company” whilst also diversifying across lucrative sectors such as cargo, retail and healthcare. Today, Brand SpiceJet has diversified into several business units such as - SpiceXpress (cargo and drones), SpiceCare (air ambulance), SpiceStyle (e-commerce), SpiceTechnic (defence, healthcare), SpiceStar Academy (aviation training), among others. The Company is now establishing itself as a strong and well-diversified brand with individual business verticals generating their independent cash flows. We are India's largest cargo company. Our international cargo network spans over 45 countries from Russia to Africa, from Europe to South Korea to the Middle East. There are lots of exciting things happening and many more in the pipeline. SpiceJet is determined to give its passengers a flying experience like never before.