There hardly goes a week when Air India does not make news. It varies from delays to product issues and inoperative seats or in-flight entertainment to food. The airline is in the middle of its turnaround and has named it Vihaan.AI. As per its admission, it is in the third phase having left behind Taxi and Take off, it is now in the “Climb” phase.

An Air India plane (Representational photo)

Air India CEO Campbell Wilson recently said that the airline could have better managed the delay to San Francisco which made a lot of news and saw the airline hand over vouchers to its passengers. Even as the airline rolls out its three-class narrowbody aircraft in the next few days, its widebody reconfiguration and refurbishment plan is yet to start seeing the light of day. This is largely due to the supply chain constraints which have plagued the aviation industry since the beginning of the pandemic and have impacted the business plans of OEMs as well as airlines.

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What exactly is the problem?

Air India passengers are often complaining of seats which are not in the best of shape and In-Flight Entertainment which isn’t working. In the middle of these problems lies an oasis of a handful of planes which are praised time and again. These are the former Delta and former Etihad aircraft which have been inducted into Air India’s fleet and largely operate to San Francisco (former Delta B777-200LRs) and London (former Etihad B777-300ERs).

The problem lies with IFEs which are not working and seats which are broken where either they do not recline or all the functionalities are not in working condition. The seats are as old as the planes and in most cases are not in production any more. Not only that, even the spares are not available and since they were not the most popular seats in the market back when they were installed, the spares today are hard to come by as not many are in operation.

Business class passengers in a recent Air India flight from Delhi to Frankfurt encountered broken seats and faulty entertainment systems.
Business class passengers in a recent Air India flight from Delhi to Frankfurt encountered broken seats and faulty entertainment systems.

The same goes for IFE with the systems being extremely old and needing a full replacement, which is not a worthy investment right now since the seats and IFE are up for a change during refurbishment. But how old are the planes exactly?

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The B777-200LRs are 15 years old having been inducted in 2009, for the B777-300ER, the newest is about seven years old while the oldest is close to 17 years old. The Dreamliner fleet has an average age of about 10 years, with the oldest plane nearing 13 years in service while the newest is nearly seven years into the grind.

The six-year lease and return of the plane model of IndiGo has gained traction locally. However, globally airlines invest in having planes on the books and the average age is much higher than that of IndiGo. Widebody aircraft have a longer average age since they do not attract the sale and leaseback value like narrowbody aircraft – which IndiGo has traditionally used to its advantage. Singapore Airlines, which will soon have equity in Air India, has an average fleet age of just under 8 years. Emirates has an average fleet age of just over 10 years, while Lufthansa’s is 14 years. Air India, on the other hand, is younger with an average fleet age of less than 10 years.

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Are old planes the problem?

Old planes are never a problem if maintained well. The 15+-year-old planes which have flown for Delta and now with Air India were inducted around 2008 by Delta. They then underwent a product upgrade and refurbishment in 2018. The planes would have operated with Delta for a good decade if not more, had it not been for the pandemic – when the airline decided to retire them. It is a different story today that every airline in the world seems to be short of planes.

Old planes in itself are not an issue. American Airlines, for example, has B777s which are over 20 years old and in operation without complaints of broken seats or IFE. The problem lies in maintenance, or rather the lack of it and not undergoing timely refurbishment. Most global airlines look for a new hard product once a decade.

Air India has already placed an order for 470 new aircraft. However, aeroplanes take time to deliver. The airline was lucky to have six A350s delivered early since they were originally destined for Aeroflot but were cancelled due to sanctions. The airline will start deploying two of those to London from Delhi, this September.

The loss-making Air India, which had been up for privatisation, the pandemic and government efforts to plug losses meant that Air India planes were not maintained to the best of service quality and levels. With Tata inheriting the hardware as is, the first task was to get grounded planes up in the air – which was a herculean task in itself and additionally looking for refurbishments.

The airline had said that it would start the refurbishment and reconfiguration of its widebody fleet in the second half of 2024, however, news reports have indicated that there is a delay in this plan. There were also reports of IFEs and seats being fixed especially in premium cabins, but recent complaints on social media seem to indicate otherwise.

Tail Note

Multiple media reports have indicated that there is a delay in refurbishment plans. Air India has neither denied nor communicated the delay. The airline had earlier announced the induction of some more B777s which earlier operated for Singapore Airlines, which too have not made it to the airline.

Surrounded by a myriad of challenges, if the airline has to move ahead – it needs a product and if it has to bridge the gap between its cost and revenue, it needs to have premium pricing – which can only happen when it has a product. The cycle has to break sometime soon before the euphoria over the Tata acquisition slowly veers off. Indeed it is a marathon and not a sprint but passengers’ patience is the shortest.