December marked the highest-ever air traffic in India

India saw its highest ever domestic traffic in a single month this December with the month closing with 13.8 million passengers, a new high! This surpassed the previous high recorded in May this year when 13.21 million domestic passengers took to the air. The December numbers are the cherry on the cake for 2023 – which also saw the highest domestic traffic in India, beating the 2019 numbers handsomely and completing the post-pandemic recovery.

There were 91044 flights in December 2023, 3% more than December 2022 when airlines had 88128 departures. (REUTERS)
There were 91044 flights in December 2023, 3% more than December 2022 when airlines had 88128 departures. (REUTERS)

At 13.8 million, domestic passengers saw a jump of 8.4% over December 2022 and 6.1% over December 2019. Interestingly, this comes with a lower number of flights from the airlines. There were 91044 flights in December 2023, 3% more than December 2022 when airlines had 88128 departures. In December 2019, domestic flights across all airlines stood at 94910, marginally higher than 2023. The active fleet of Indian carriers has been going down last year, driven by three airlines. SpiceJet’s financial woes kept the planes grounded, Go FIRST shutting operations in May and over 40 aircraft of IndiGo remaining on the ground due to issues with Pratt & Whitney engines.

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Traditionally, the year-end holidays of December have led to higher traffic than the longer summer holidays. This is due to the holiday traffic travelling in a shorter holiday window as compared to a longer summer holiday window – where traffic is spread across a 45 to 60-day period as compared to a 10-day period

December 2023 – the pinnacle of air traffic in India

After a minor scare in November, when the uptick in traffic came to a halt even during Diwali, the air traffic has gained momentum – largely driven by the changing economic climate and periodic but selective sale fares from the airlines.

December saw an average per day passengers of 4.45 lakh, which was higher than the previous month by 22,000 passengers per day. The traffic was driven by addition of capacity by IndiGo – which wet-leased aircraft, 11 of which are now in operation and from the Tata group which has added capacity across its three the .

These good numbers are despite the fact that there were a few bad weather days impacting operations and cancellations. It started with the diversions at Goa due to military aircraft skidding off the runway. Before airlines could recover from that disruption, Delhi weather led to another set of diversions and cancellations for the next two days. These three consecutive days of disruptions led to lower flights being operated in Indian skies.

Indian domestic traffic rebounded to pre-COVID levels and beyond in 2023. The traffic is 6% higher than in 2019, and 23% more than in 2022. Each month of the year, except for November, saw more passengers than the corresponding month of 2019 – the last full year pre-COVID. Election year typically sees a lot of growth as it is one of the economic drivers. With 2024 being an election year and India’s economy projected to grow between 6% to 7.5%, a 15% growth in domestic traffic cannot be ruled out. This will take the domestic traffic to 17.5 million, subject to support from airlines inducting planes. The effective induction would be larger from the Tata group of airlines.

Tail note

With a record December, the industry is well over the fall of Go FIRST – which was carrying about 20,000 passengers daily when it went down in May. While this bodes well for the industry, it does not bode well for the revival of Go FIRST as the new owners have to start afresh to make a mark in the market.

The month and the year have closed on a high note but airlines are already staring at the challenges of 2024, especially IndiGo which will see up to 40 more aircraft being grounded. The other factor which everyone is looking at keenly is the penetration of COVID with its latest variant showing a consistent increase in cases in the neighbourhood including countries which have made travel for Indians “visa-free”. Will the new year revelry result in more cases being recorded in India and its likely impact on traffic.

It’s time to bask in the glory of the year gone by before worrying for the future, yet it remains to be seen how much profit does the quarter record? A bumper quarter and a bumper profit would set the path forward for most airlines.

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