Intro: This week Indiastat brings you an exclusive interview of international aviation expert Dr. Ricardo V. Pilon who shares a deeper insight into how the aviation economy can be revived worldwide. Speaking to Senior Journalist Mahima Sharma, the Canada based Aviation Executive & Chief AI Strategy Officer and Founder of Millennium-AI, Dr Pilon also shares the strengths and challenges that lie ahead for TATA’s Air India, plus what steps need to be taken to revive the Indian Aviation sector as well as the Jet Airways. He asserts that for better global outcomes, Indian Aviation Ministry must work on a strategic Civil Aviation Master Plan (CAMP), the principal futurewise framework with actional plans and tangible deliverables that addresses rapidly unfolding global trends (climate change, demographic change, disruptive technologies, urbanisation, the economic power shift to Asia, and increased global connectedness), capitalises on change and embeds new technology in a harmonised manner. This and more in an in depth, exclusive chat below.
MS: Amid the pandemic, the global aviation industry has been among the worst hit. What does the future of the aviation industry look like, in India as well as globally?
RVP: The future of the aviation industry looks bright, as promising as before, not only because the world population will continue to grow but also because we are making adjustments to the value propositions we can bring to people, companies, and nations while we increasingly invent and adopt ways to do so more sustainably. This intersection of economic growth and climate change represents more opportunities than threats to global aviation and mobility than we tend to believe. But we have to learn to think and act more globally (regulation-wise) and locally (intermobility-wise by including regional and urban mobility).
The pandemic has interrupted a decade of solid profitable performance (with its peak in 2015) by undermining both mobility as well as the predictability we witnessed in profitable growth in air transport prior to COVID-19. One of the key priorities we are facing now is to remove uncertainty about health and safety rules, vaccination and testing requirements, travel restrictions and even airline service levels to restore confidence in air travel. The pandemic has also caused divergent trends in the composition of traffic, where corporations were more hesitant to allow staff travel whereas leisure travellers (individuals, families, and VFR traffic) around the world have been growing increasingly impatient and eager to travel. As a result, business travel has been much slower to recover - especially in long-haul markets - than leisure travel. For India, a key component of traffic from and into India is represented by migrant workers in the Middle East and elsewhere, but this segment started to recover rapidly as of mid 2021. In most domestic markets, and also in India, traffic is near pre-COVID 19 levels today. The issue is cross-border and more importantly, international and long-haul travel. Where there is service, and due to the capacity rationalisation to match capacity closer to observed demand, the yields are generally actually quite healthy, and in some cases above pre-pandemic levels. But where carriers are overly aggressive in their capacity redeployment, promotions are driving higher load factors at the detriment of average revenue per seat mile (yield).
The pandemic has accelerated the move to digitise and provide relevant information to travellers about health and documentation requirements in real time and through airline Apps. This additional service adds value in that it is timely, convenient, and necessary in an age where travellers demand more control, speed, and convenience from the airline as an assistant in their travel planning and throughout their journey. Simultaneously, the intensified engagement airlines now have with their customers is helping airlines to accelerate initiatives that were already in the roadmap, that is, the journey toward personalising and offering retail services around the core airline seat and air transport product through modern data-driven approaches using automation facilitated by artificial intelligence.
However, in the short term, we are seeing a closer focus on leisure travellers and driving incremental revenues around new products and services. This is also to make up for the shortfall in business travel and the use of business class cabins with revenue passengers. In that segment, airlines will focus more on monetizing assets and partnerships within their frequent flyer programs (FFPs) by merchandising loyalty currency and through expenditure on co-branded credit cards.
MS: What economic policy changes must the Aviation Ministry of India implement to ensure smooth international aviation & commerce amid the ongoing pandemic situation so as to recover the losses?
RVP: Ever since the drive to liberalisation in India’s aviation sector that began in 2003, the industry has gone through a number of rapid and important transformations. Overall, they have been positive but not without noticeable struggles. Strong GDP growth and a travel-savvy young segment combined with a stronger middle class sector have propelled growth in air travel to unprecedented levels. Today, the aviation sector represents about 5% of India’s GDP, but this could easily grow to 8-9% by 2025 with the removal of rigid regulations and forces that dampen the workings of an efficient market.
One of the fundamental obstacles to profitable growth is regulation, particularly around domestic fare bands, which have recently only been raised by 12.5% whereas jet aviation fuel prices in India showed a 400% increase in Indian airlines’ operating costs (throughout 2021). This is clearly not commercially sustainable.
One of the key challenges to smooth international aviation growth is the friction that exists between national and state governments, but also with regard to the state of the infrastructure at many airports, the lack of an efficient and cohesive national air navigation system, as well as the high and regulated airport fees that hinder growth in the more price-sensitive segments. This also applies to the domestic market, where low-cost airlines such as SpiceJet (India’s 2nd largest domestic carrier with almost 18 percent market share) could accelerate a modal shift away from the massive domestic railroad network and ease domestic mobility. The propensity to travel to India had never been to high as in 2019, and the Aviation Ministry of India is encouraged to take a more holistic view of domestic mobility and international connectivity by focusing on key growth markets, enabling the acceleration of modern airport infrastructure and open up the market for foreign direct investment (FDI) to execute the operational platform that will connect India’s markets to key overseas markets, while ensuring the facilities are priced competitively with a long-term strategic vision. This is especially important coming out of the pandemic. And while this is the approach that has been taken with the modernization and expansion at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai (BOM) by 2019, there is an urgent need to address the profile and capabilities of secondary airports.
A case in point is Thiruvananthapuram airport where the state government has been insisting to play a role in the Kerala airport by not relinquishing control of the commercial process around the leasing agreement of the facilities through Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). This turned out to complicate matters, frustrating the relationships with Adani Enterprise and created a rift between the Airport Authority of India (AAI) and other stakeholders. It is an illustration of a case where the delivery toward the original objective is undermined by governance and conflict of interest that should have been addressed and adhered to from the onset. The overruling of formality with informal powers is undermining national as well as the aviation industry’s potential. A proper governance structure combined with “laissez-faire” of the market should lead to win-win results and prevent a deceleration of joint efforts resulting in suboptimal performance.
MS: What kind of strategic technological contracts must India sign abroad so as to give the right impetus to its aviation sector?
RVP: In fact, governments and the Ministry of Civil Aviation in India increasingly face divergent trends and discontinuities that call for an instrument to better manage the sector going forward and to enable foresight-driven actions that optimise the outcomes for aviation and for national economic development. This instrument would be a strategic Civil Aviation Master Plan (CAMP), the principal futurewise framework with actional plans and tangible deliverables that addresses rapidly unfolding global trends (climate change, demographic change, disruptive technologies, urbanisation, the economic power shift to Asia, and increased global connectedness), capitalises on change and embeds new technology in a harmonised manner.
There is a clear need for more countries, including India, to manage the future of civil aviation by developing or modernising a Civil Aviation Master Plan (CAMP). This strategic plan would be prepared with national stakeholders to complete a framework that includes not only infrastructure, but also human resources, systems and procedures and even possible organisation structure and financing changes that will enable safe, efficient and sustainable growth. The strategic CAMP would enable the Ministry of Civil Aviation in India to be an excellent civil aviation provider, manager and regulator with the resilience to adapt to change and to balance the allocation of means and resources to the aviation sector by linking tangible outcomes of CAMP to both national development and transport sector strategic plans.
As part of India’s Civil Aviation Master Plan, a collaborative platform is required to underpin and bring together all stakeholders with global and experienced engineering firms. These engineering firms can tap into capabilities and resources that will prove to be key assets to improve the infrastructure and work with manufacturers that can provide and integrate new technologies to make airport operations more effective, efficient, and sustainable.
With regard to looking outward, the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation should seek coordination, knowledge sharing and collaboration with other Civil Aviation Authorities and be part of global initiatives under Airports Council International and ICAO to join industry centres of excellence and communities of practice. The Ministry could also encourage airport operators to collaborate or form alliances with leading airport groups (such as Fraport, Amsterdam Airport Schiphol) that invest in, operate, and consult other airports to structure and position for growth in a way that is constructive and conducive for an improved overall air transport system that also offer travellers a safe, pleasant and hassle-free experience.
Finally, the Ministry of Civil Aviation is encouraged to facilitate a dialogue between airline operators and aircraft manufacturers. For instance, Airbus’ investment in its UpNext facility in Spain dedicated to developing new hydrogen technologies is a development the nation and all its stakeholders should be aware of and learn from its applicability going forward.
MS: With the Tatas winning the bid for Air India, the aviation sector is expected soon to go for re-rating and revaluation. What would be the impact of the same on the global aviation industry?
RVP: I believe that before we will see an impact in the marketplace, some high-priority homework will be completed internally. Tata Sons, which with a slight delay that was announced late December 2021, will in February or early 2022 own Talace Ltd (which houses Air India, Air India Express and Air Asia India), will need to focus on working capital requirements first. They will assume responsibility for the operating expenses and capital commitments. It will take a rapid taskforce to gain insights into how to get control over an enterprise riddled with capital destruction while a separate team will focus on the customer-facing issues and processes that need to be addressed in the short term. Some of those include the completion factor of the schedule, the on-time performance, resolving customer complaints and customer service processes.
With regard to the marketplace, the new ownership of Air India by Tata will have both domestic and international repercussions. The priorities are to align the cost base with the yield climate while protecting and building on market share. It may or may not launch a separate low-cost airline to tackle the domestic market outside Air India Express to fend off SpiceJet, but there is something to be said to prioritise the international market and better position Air India within the Star Alliance first. The latter partners can contribute to connecting traffic while Air India itself has the benefit of capitalising on Air Service Agreement (ASAs) in dense point-to-point routes it can operate independently and thus secure higher yields. Examples include of course the flights into the USA. It will have to address the modernization of the fleet and perhaps a (at least initially) simplified service product around a focused strategy.
A focused, rationalised and well-positioned Air India could reconquer market share lost to 6th freedom operators based in Dubai, Doha and Abu-Dhabi, while recapturing market share in the local market between India and the Middle-East. As such, depending on how well the commercial and operational strategy is executed, Air India with/within Star Alliance will cause shifts in the market between the alliance groups as well as in traffic composition from East to West, and from India to the world.
MS: What kind of corporate & business development strategy, commercial strategy, and modern digital business development (based on AI and other digital tools) must the TATA's Air India employ to recover and be at par with the best airlines of the world?
RVP: From a corporate strategy perspective, Tata’s Air India will need to define its purpose around air transportation as well as in a wider context. At the pure business level, Air India is an airline that facilitates trade, tourism and communication through air transportation, but the Tata group can use Air India as an instrument for wider economic purposes in global trade, such as opening up new markets for other industries overseas. I am not aware that this is currently on the agenda, but the airline can be a tool to branch out deeper into tourism, hospitality, adventure sectors or in trade and commerce platforms, including global events, or they can simply use air transportation as a component in building breadth and depth in consumer retailing on digital platforms (Apps) that use and monetize air transportation as a marketing multiplier because of its appeal.
No matter how Tata executives go about it, the only effective way to improve the effectiveness of any business model is to have the governance in place that can objectively deliver around a data-driven organisation. So, while we can use machine learning and the automation of smarter processes (thanks to ML and deep learning) through AI in specific departments (such as loyalty, pricing, revenue management, digital marketing and SalesTech), the challenge is to design an organisation where AI adds value by cutting across departments to bring and deliver new value propositions that are relevant for each micro segment or individual in each context in a convenient manner.
Ultimately, which is what I see in my work, we are starting to use AI in HR and talent, to remedy skill set gaps through recommended (and automated) training. The changing needs of an organisation and its behaviour to meet business objectives is also a problem we are now starting to tackle with AI. In short, AI can help in organisation design that will facilitate the execution of business strategy.
What I describe above is not where airlines are at, yet. But AI is a capability that needs to be built so that its applications can start adding value through improved segmentation, refined and micro-optimized pricing, tailored service products (customization), and convenience through the automation of repetitive tasks that do not add value to either staff or customers. And one starting point is all customer-facing processes (trip planning, seamless travel, being a digital assistant throughout the trip).
MS: Backed by stock market investor and billionaire Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Akasa Air has announced a total of over $13 billion worth of deals for 72 aircrafts and engines ahead of its slated summer launch in 2022. How would this change the aviation economics of India? And what strategy would it have to adopt to steer safely in one of the trickiest aviation markets of the world, that is driven by the demand of cheapest air tickets amid high taxes on turbine fuel?
RVP: Indeed, it is tricky and it is not for lack of growth potential. Ever since its public debut in July, Akasa has become the most talked-about airline in the country. The challenge is in gaining access to a market that can compete freely based on market mechanisms, which is not the case today. That means that the only remaining base of competitive advantage is the cost base, which for 60-65% depends on input costs and variable costs that are outside the control of the carrier (e.g. airport/landing fees).
Nonetheless, Akasa will be based in the tech capital Bangalore and aims to target underserved, or non-existing, air transport markets. This is a sound strategy to build density and scale the business to a point at which it can enter more mature markets. It will have built operational maturity and an offensive to gain market share in markets where Air India Express and SpiceJet have an established footprint. But until the next ultra low-cost airline startup comes along, Akasa will have the benefit to pioneer into new territory. In a way, it does not fundamentally differ from how IndiGo built its position to become the largest carrier in India. What IndiGo did well is scale back its operation and switch to a charter model that would improve the balance between supply and demand. In order for Akasa to launch and scale well, it is recommended to use technology well to measure intent to travel (for instance using machine learning and AI-based planning) and execute operations in near real time with precision.
MS: Recent supply-chain delays and component shortages are spilling over into the aviation market, making it difficult and more costly for leading planemakers like Boeing and Airbus to get hold of certain parts. This comes as demand for commercial planes is surging, and could put the airline industry’s recovery at risk. What's your take on this and advice on the same?
RVP: It is true that this is impacting production lines and delivery times. However, we have in recent years seen significant investment in modern aircraft beyond like-for-like replacement. What I am referring to is that we have taken advantage of cash and liquidity-based reserves coupled with access to low-cost capital to accelerate aircraft renewal programs beyond pure replacement and growth requirements. Approximately 20 percent of new aircraft orders between 2015-2019 were centred around the future use of more fuel-efficient aircraft while the operating fleet still had many years in both economic as well as technical lives. These aircraft, many of which were stored during the pandemic (and a large proportion being older wide-body aircraft), are still available and can quickly be rendered serviceable.
It appears that the shortage we will face is more on the pilot end than with aircraft. In addition, a tighter capacity environment would be beneficial for carriers in terms of a better yield climate, but it may be very well be the case that when all capacity is unleashed again, that we could face overcapacity in some markets, which would undermine profitable recovery other than the pure drive to cash-flow from operations.
MS: Though the world is slowly opening up to vaccinated travellers, with a third wave in sight due to the Omicron Variant, will the nations going into a lockdown mode be the right decision for the third time? If not, then how can the aviation economy be revived at a better rate, without going into an aviation lockdown? (Reference: In 2019, India had seen nearly 11 million international tourist arrivals which translated into $30 billion of foreign exchange. But post the first and second lockdowns, the profits nosedived).
RVP: There are many different political views on whether lockdowns, travel bans or other restrictions are actually effective in terms of fighting the spread of COVID-19. Fact is that they do impact on the actual level of service and extent to which airlines can operate their flights, not to mention the perception that the general public has on safe travel by air, including the safe use of airports and airport-related facilities. To some extent, we are already living with this pandemic and finding new ways to deal with a changed operating environment. This year is a testament to how many more people venture out (compared to 2020 traffic almost doubled), get informed and comply with new requirements.
What is required, is what appears to be a challenge every time the world is hit with an unexpected event with global repercussions. We need coordination at a world-wide level between aviation regulators (ICAO, WHO) and associations (IATA) to help nations agree to global standards, a harmonised approach and unified processes through which airlines and other related stakeholders can carry out our business. This will help restore confidence, improve predictability, and stabilise markets quickly, which is in everybody and every nation’s interest. But due to the dynamics and different personas and personalities involved, achieving this in a short time frame is very challenging.
MS: What steps must India take for the revival of Jet Airways? And what's your advice to the new emerging players to not face the same fate as Jet or erstwhile Air India?
RVP: What happened to Jet Airways was unfortunate. As the oldest and first private airline in India, it overexpanded beyond its capabilities with poorly executed and unfit acquisitions, but its core airline did have a focused business model in focus markets. The operating climate had deteriorated to an extent that Jet Airways should have restructured and repurposed earlier.
The revival of Jet Airways has to heed a new environment that includes a post-pandemic economy and new players, including an aggressive domestic startup (Akasa). A sound and prudent approach for the new Jet Airways would be to work through a combination of collaborative and innovative techniques to secure a market position that is at least partially shielded from head-on price-based competition. Having said that, it could be a complementary partner to any of the other domestic players, while securing a place in international alliances to allow it to get back onto its feet in international markets. It is unlikely that a full-blown hub and spoke network approach would succeed, because of the inherent start-up and costs to scale. As such, Jet Airways needs to identify point-to-point markets where its projected cost base can churn out a margin given a differentiated product. And if it is to steer a bit clear from Tata’s Air India, my suspicion is that a leisure-based point-to-point carrier with à-la-carte services is the safest spot in the spectrum of airline business models at this time. It could bleed plunging into heavy alliance competition-based scheduled markets, which is where Air India will most likely operate. During the recovery, there will not be sufficient room for two or more with identical models.
MS: India and global commitments towards reducing the adverse climate changes, but a slowly rising aviation sector with addition of more flights thereby adding to more air pollution. What's your take on the same? And what steps including the green energy transition backed by digital technology be taken to bring down this adverse impact? (Reference: The green transformation of China's civil aviation industry is generating new business opportunities and vast space for innovation to industry players both at home and globally.)
RVP: We can reduce emissions today by operating better using technology to cut flight times with centralised and GPS-based navigation. This has been a big debate within the EU but also in China. Also, many suppliers already offer digital solutions to reduce fuel burn, such as GE Digital Aviation Software. Through health and operating analytics, we can also use AI for predictive maintenance of engines that prevents failure or optimises fuel burn. In fact, in aircraft operations, we have already reduced the average carbon footprint per mile flown by over 70% since the mid 1970s. Now, the industry is looking at outright replacement of the operating principles of current technology.
For now, most will have to be driven by emission reduction based targets across the sector including at airports. Many ramp and taxi operations can be performed with the help of electric vehicles, and electricity consumption in itself can be reduced using artificial intelligence technology, both in buildings and beyond.
Also, the growing interest in trialling and gradually moving to the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is an important transition, but only that, until we find zero-emission energy sources for propulsion of long-haul flight. Today, there is more speculation about this than a certainty of what that will look like.
Finally, we could expect to see a mix of regulation and market forces that will impact on the extent to which airlines carry out their hub and spoke activities, either by taxing aviation fuel or by addressing the externalities that longer distances (through H&S) cause to the environment, such as air travel taxes based on distance flown. This will have some effect on global networks.
MS: How can AI be employed to enhance the business model and what are the roadblocks to be overcome?
RVP: The real potential of AI is in creating a data-driven organisation that uses deep learning to cut across the organisation and uses AI to design the organisation structure that will help execute the business model. This can only be done if and when we start embracing AI in Human Resources and build metric-based performance assessment to help align and integrate talent, process and technology in the creation of modernised functions and business processes that are viewed holistically from the customer perspective, thus outside-in. Today, airlines are still focused from the inside-out, and most still at the “from-to” as in flight operations based. This has to be reversed from customer, context, and sought experience (including purpose) inward.
This is the only way that a learning organisation can be created and sustained. Otherwise, we add a new skill in a narrow context that will not continuously update and transform the behaviour that the airline needs to display to evolve with and in its marketplace.
In short, we need to combine several layers of AI (Composite AI) to get to a strategic organisational level of AI that includes HR and organisation design (Enterprise AI). This will likely take another 5-10 years before it becomes mainstream.
MS: Finally the last question for our student readers: What is the future and career scope of a student who takes up Aviation Economics?
RVP: In fact, the industry has never been so complex, sophisticated and appealing as it is today. The industry needs new talent in its transition to sophisticated offer management through relevant data-driven products and services at an individual (not customer group) level. This speaks to the commercial and retailing side.
Meanwhile, students in aviation need to understand the principles of air transport economics, network economics and dynamics, as well as aircraft economics. The latter will become increasingly important as we look for zero-emission alternatives to short-haul operations, which may very well have to be better integrated into urban mobility infrastructures. As a matter of fact, it is likely that the air transport industry needs to embed urban planning capabilities to enhance its role in an integrated mobility system that is clean, frictionless, and alleviates congestion and negative spillover effects in society. To this end, we also need airport and facility engineers to help look at options to connect to more remote (but connected) locations to operate long-haul and large capacity aircraft, which will continue to operate with fossil fuel-based propulsion systems in the foreseeable future, while we aggressively look at hydrogen or hybrid options.
India has traditionally shown great strength in and having abundant assets in high-quality education. India is also known for its talent pool in engineering, notably in software engineering and application development. I believe one pillar within that community that has great potential for growth, and should appeal to future students, is in sustainable aviation. India can contribute to new technology in aircraft design, propulsion systems, clean technology to surface (air) vehicles, but also in AI-based optimization of operational systems, processes, and applications in commercial as well as transportation and logistics operations management. This applies to airport and airport facility management, flight operations, air navigation, etc.
About Dr. Ricardo V. Pilon
Dr. Ricardo V. Pilon has over 25 years of airline management experience in commercial strategy, and is the Owner of Millennium-AI and Co-Founder and Managing Partner of AI Training Group. Millennium-AI and AI Training Group are based in Montreal (Canada) and Amsterdam (the Netherlands). Canada based Dr Ricardo builds the bridge between business management, the strategic use of AI in commercial optimization, and organisation design for client partners. He specialises in the creation and implementation of smart organisations around data-driven design, contextual selling and the modernization of pricing and revenue optimization systems using Ai-enabled and ML technology to unlock strategic commercial capabilities.
Dr. Pilon holds an MSc in Air Transport Management, an MBA in Aviation, another MSc in Applied Organisational Psychology, a PhD in Strategic Airline Planning and is also a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA), Chartered Business Valuator (CBV) and Professional & Personal Certified Coach (PPCC). He is currently further pursuing a PsyD in Organisational Psychology specialising in the use of AI to implement data-driven learning organisation design in airlines.
About the Interviewer
Mahima Sharma is an Independent Journalist based in Delhi NCR. She has been in the field of TV, Print & Online Journalism since 2005 and previously an additional three years in allied media. In her span of work she has been associated with CNN-News18, ANI - Asian News International (A collaboration with Reuters), Voice of India, Hindustan Times and various other top media brands of their times. In recent times, she has diversified her work as a Digital Media Marketing Consultant & Content Strategist as well. Mahima can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclaimer : The opinions expressed within this interview are the personal opinions of the interviewee. The facts and opinions appearing in the answers do not reflect the views of Indiastat or the interviewer. Indiastat does not hold any responsibility or liability for the same.