Air India's comeback: elevating presence in Indian aviation and cargo
Tata's Air India Cargo showcased at IICS Mumbai, 2023, strategically positioning for market re-entry.
After becoming part of Tata, Air India is eyeing a significant resurgence in the Indian aviation market, positioning itself ahead of competitors both domestically and internationally. The airline is not only focusing on passenger services but also striving to revitalize its freight and cargo operations network in India and globally.
While Air India is renowned as an Indian passenger carrier, it has a history of operating air cargo services. Air India Cargo, the freight-carrying subsidiary, initiated freight operations in 1954 with a Douglas DC-3 aircraft. Subsequently, the airline acquired a Boeing 747 and a Douglas DC-8, making it the first Asian airline to operate freighters.
Operating the Boeing 747 and Douglas DC-8 aircraft on international routes between the 1980s and 1990s, cargo has consistently been an integral part of Air India's operations. Despite a temporary halt to cargo services, the airline resumed freighter operations in 2006 with two A310 aircraft. However, in 2012, due to escalating losses, operational challenges, and heightened competition from Middle Eastern carriers, Air India suspended cargo operations.
Post-privatization, the airline is eager to reclaim its legacy in the Indian aviation market. Earlier this year, Air India ordered 470 aircraft, aiming to bolster its global network with advanced aircraft like Airbus A350s. Recently, the airline made significant adjustments to its Airbus aircraft order, expressing a preference for additional A350-900s and A321neos. The widebody order now includes 20 A350-900s and 20 A350-1000s in equal numbers. Additionally, the narrowbody category sees revised orders for 140 A321neos and 70 A320neos.
The airline is preparing to receive its first Airbus A350-900 aircraft by the end of this month, featuring a new livery. Alongside this, the airline will unveil the new cabin for its A350. In a promising move, Air India Cargo was seen as an exhibitor at the India International Cargo Show 2023 in Mumbai, signaling its intent to enhance the prominence of its cargo business both in India & globally.
This announcement comes after the airline unveiled new crew uniforms designed by Indian fashion designer Manish Malhotra. While there is no indication of acquiring new cargo freighters in the current fleet, the possibility remains open for the future.
Earlier this year, Air India appointed Ramesh Mamidala to lead its cargo business, bringing over 25 years of air cargo experience with leading airlines such as Emirates SkyCargo and Qatar Airways Cargo, as well as expertise in cargo handling and airport operations. Mamidala, until recently, served as the chief cargo officer at Adani Airports Holdings, overseeing cargo business across seven airports under its management.
Recent developments include strategic additions to Air India's cargo division. Saket Gupta, with 24 years of experience at Lufthansa Cargo, joined as the assistant vice president responsible for cargo pricing and revenue management. Sudeep Narayan was hired to lead international sales for the airline's cargo operations, bringing two decades of experience with carriers such as Emirates SkyCargo, Etihad Cargo, and forwarders like Dachser and EFL.
Collaborating with global carriers is a priority for Air India to scale up its network in other countries. Lufthansa recently expressed willingness to expand cargo collaboration with Air India to increase cargo volumes.
In a strategic move, Delhi has solidified its position as a key cargo hub for Air India, connecting vital routes to the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. Air India has introduced an innovative feeder service, combining road and air transport to efficiently transport bonded cargo from various regions across the country to Delhi. This initiative not only optimizes cargo operations but also enhances outbound cargo capacity from Delhi.
In the April-June quarter, Air India's share of India's international air freight stood at 6.7%, ranking it fifth behind industry giants like Emirates, Qatar Airways, Aerologic, and Cathay Pacific. This scenario has prompted Air India to reassess its approach to cargo operations.
In summary, Air India's strategic repositioning in the cargo market underscores the company's commitment to diversification and expansion. With its historical significance, renewed focus on cargo services, and a dynamic leadership team, Air India is poised to make a substantial impact on India's international air freight market.