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Don’t demonise air travel

 

solar plane

Solar Impulse 2 touches down in Spain completing a historic trans Atlantic flight. photo credit: dispatch.com

Air India recently made headlines by offering last-minute unsold seats at the price of AC rail tickets. It makes a lot of business sense for the national carrier: every marginal rupee it earns adds to its bottom line. More important, the fact that its bottom line is attracting leadership-level eyeballs is welcome for a state-owned company that budgeted for government support of Rs 19,900 crores over the 2012-16 period.

This new initiative could bomb if it makes regular air travelers, who are time flexible,wait till the last minute to book tickets. This would squeeze revenues further. But if it induces rail travelers to fly instead, it will be a win-win. This is a calculated risk that must be tested. What is more significant is that it signals the Maharaja’s changed can-do business-oriented approach.

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Disruptive pricing or funded wars for market-share

Disruptive price innovation in passenger travel as a whole is a welcome move to squeeze out hidden value. This should be distinguished from the price war unleashed by private low-cost airlines a decade ago, and again in 2014, to gain market share within aviation. As the e-commerce market has found, funding losses to push out the competition quickly reaches the endpoint. Air India, a full-service airline, unlike some private carriers which levy hidden costs for baggage, seat allocation and food, should be encouraged to go further and explore all commercial options for expanding the air travel pie. Pulling away rail travelers, willing to pay AC fares, to fly instead is a good one.

Less than one per cent or 60 million inter-city travelers choose to fly. For most, the higher cost is the barrier. But for significant numbers easy connectivity is also an issue. Civil aviation is the neglected child of the ersatz socialism we have long practised. So deep is the association of private enterprise and markets with the rich that even this government, with its massive mandate, has to battle populist urges to stay on course with its reform agenda.

The socialist bias against air travel

Till just two years back, the thought of air travel competing with trains was a fantasy. Seen through the binary vision of poor versus non-poor, air travel is a luxury used mostly by the non-poor. Imposing penal taxes on air travel is therefore only a natural corollary of this bias.

The good news is that such mindsets are changing. The Union government has worked quietly but effectively since 2014 to convince state governments not to levy penal taxes on air turbine fuel, which cripple expansion of this sector. The fuel cost is 50 per cent of an airline’s total costs. State governments earlier saw air travel as a cash cow and levied VAT at penal rates of up to 29 per cent.

Government intervenes to correct the tax disincentives

But now several states, most affected by poor connectivity, wisely responded to the Union government’s efforts to de-demonise air travel. Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and West Bengal slashed VAT to nominal levels in late 2014. Even CPI(M)-ruled Tripura was persuaded to reduce VAT to 18 per cent. Around 50 per cent of air traffic today and the bulk of profits are from flights linking the seven large metros. The need for better regional connectivity is obvious in a country of India’s size, that is also saddled with our dodgy surface transport infrastructure. Travelling from Kanyakumari, on the Indian Ocean, to Jammu, just below the Himalayas, or from Dwarka, on the Arabian Sea,K to Dibrugarh in Assam takes at least three days by train and even longer by road.

The Centre has launched a parallel scheme to improve air connectivity by creating a special fund to finance the gap in financial viability for linking Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities by air. There are around 50 of these. The pity is that this initiative is seen as fulfilling a social objective. This is an effective way to kill the long-term sustainability of air operations on these routes.

Regional air travel a wooly “social” objective  or just good economics?

Regional connectivity shouldn’t be branded as a populist goody. Air connectivity drives and contributes to growth and decent jobs. Globally, every job created directly in civil aviation leads to an additional six jobs indirectly. Only a link with growth will induce serious air operators to see the proposed subsidy as an initial sweetener rather than a perpetual crutch. Faster and better passenger trains are an option too. But it will take at least two decades to build upgraded rail tracks and the appropriate rolling stock. Our fastest passenger trains run at an average speed of only 80 km/hour. High-speed trains of the type envisaged between Mumbai and Ahmedabad and later between New Delhi and Varanasi can be viable only on high-density routes. These also cost a packet. The intrepid Elon Musk of the SpaceX rocket venture; Tesla Solar Wall and automated electric car, envisages a disruptive technology – travel by Hyperloop — an elevated tube mounted on pylons with passenger pods pushed through at hyper-speeds using electro-magnetic waves.

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The ball park estimate is a capital cost at $6 billion, just a fraction of the $68 billion, planned to be spent on the high-speed rail link between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Musk concedes that beyond 1,500 km, air travel would still be cheaper.But this innovation in transportation is yet to be piloted and tested. Commercialization is unlikely before 2030 though Musk is pushing for 2020.

Air travel also more safe and easy to secure than surface transport

In lightly-policed countries like ours, the security and safety of ultra high-speed inter-city passenger trains is a matter of some concern. Air travel is more difficult to cripple and offers higher security levels as it is off the ground. It is suitable for connecting urban growth hubs at distances beyond 500 km under our “enclaved pattern” of development

The Maharaja has kicked-off its strategy to meet the competition in a fiscally sustainable and affordable manner. More power to the elbow of the civil aviation leadership to grow the pie of the air travel business.

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Adapted from the authors article in the Asian Age, July 18, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/incentivise-air-travel-new-links-will-boost-growth-825

 

The San Jose window

apple 2

photo credit: http://www.morror.uk.co

So what did the Silicon dudes, collectively representing around $500 billion in purchasing power, think of the case placed before them by the self-made, roughhewn yet charismatic Indian Prime Minister — the man with a penchant for the dramatic?

From the looks of it, they thought he was kosher. Someone they could talk turkey with. Of course they are pretty constrained in what they can do. They are businessmen — oddly all of them are men. Inflating their egos and appealing to them for “help” can soften them a bit. But, ultimately, business folks live and die by the shareholder wealth.

The good news is that India fits in well even on this metric. We have the numbers. We shall be the most populous country by 2030. More importantly, each of us would also have decent purchasing power by then — Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants each of us to have $13,500 per year in today’s value terms.

This is improbable. But even if we get to just half of that, which is possible, we would be as “well off” as China is today. That is not very rich by the standards of the rich, but definitely upper middle class — no mean achievement for a country whose diplomats still, habitually swear by the begging bowl approach in international negotiations.

An additional $50 trillion in purchasing power over 15 years makes all business drool — not just in the Silicon Valley. The annual revenues of the Fortune 500 companies is $ 12.5 trillion — a tidy sum that’s more than nine times India’s GDP. Okay, so now we know why all those kind business folk turned up dutifully to be with

Mr Modi. But why then did the Indian Prime Minister bother to go through with the dance? After all, if India is such an irresistible market, then shouldn’t the Fortune 500s be rushing in to occupy the 500,000 apartments which lie unoccupied today in India?

Two factors explain the asymmetry between the hubris at home and the fizz abroad.

First, Team India is a big ship. Stoking the fire in its oversized belly and changing course takes time. Until the crumbling “plumbing” is fixed, citizens will react to the bad smells reaching them. Fixing the leaks is still a work in progress as illustrated by the sermons delivered to the Prime Minister at his meet with the Fortune 500 crowd.

In contrast, business overseas view visitors much the same as co-passengers on a flight. This goes for both the older, preachy Fortune 500, who are classic bullies, or the more gentle, other-worldly yogis in Silicon Valley, adept at the “rope trick” of quietly raking in billions without a bottomline to support the extraordinary valuations of their stock. They will engage whilst the flight lasts, knowing they can end the conversation when they please. But anything more substantive is only on mutually acceptable terms — these being the “bottomline” for the “sunset community” in the Fortune 500 group and the “top line” for the Silicon geeks.

India presents more immediate potential for the “top line” obsessed Silicon entrepreneur. Their escalator is founded on growing the business, not solely much on growing profits. This is not to say that there are no profits to be made in India. But Asian companies from Japan, China, and Korea in sunset industries, are better placed to be responsive to the fragmented Indian market than a Fortune 500 corporate, which survive on scale not agility.

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photo credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk

It is no wonder then that whilst Prime Minister warmed up instinctively to the Silicon Valley crowd. The interaction with the “500 dinosaurs” was stiff, formal and somewhat resigned, as in a divorce case, where both sides talk at each other rather than with each other.

Thankfully, Silicon Valley is more vital for India’s urgent “development” needs than the czars of Wall Street, Detroit or Houston. San Jose and New Mexico is about disruptive innovation. This “value” shapes business processes, supply lines and determines who the next “legend” will be. This resonates well with the “individualistic” Indian.

The electron is the best antidote for exclusion — the proverbial mongoose to the snake of elite privilege and patronage. Digital access democratises access to information and knowledge especially if customised in India’s 22 languages. Connecting 600,000 villages and all educational institutions with broadband will provide Internet access to all.

Nandan Nilekani’s UID is a game changer which is being actively expanded for the direct transfer of subsidy and to ease public transactions. Its power lies in its ability to target public interventions narrowly, much like a micro-surgeon.

Digital access enhances communication and remote participation even in local events, a feature crucial for a country of domestic migrants, where 25 per cent of the people live away from where they were born.

The proposed digital archiving of individual data-identity, health and education records in secure “lockers” liberates the marginalised in particular who have no permanent residence, live in insecure places and are frequently required to produce these documents for temporary jobs and to access public services.

For the elite personalised service via human interaction elevates their own sense of entitlement. But a dalit, whose very shadow is abhorrent to some, may prefer an impersonal, indeed robotic, neutral, service provider, like an ATM which is available 24×7 to suit varying work schedules. Street dwellers will be the first to benefit from lower pollution if tele-meetings and remote work cuts the need to commute. The primary beneficiaries of tele-medicine will be remote villages where all they have today is the village “Bengali” doctor.

Information trawled from social media by specialist apps helps to counter terror, manage disasters better and get real time feedback on the quality of public services.

Digital India is the key to critical aspects of inclusive development, enhancing the “efficiency” of public investment and more “decent” jobs.

But this is not the real reason why Prime Minister Modi is happiest talking “new” technology. Behind his stern “Samurai” exterior lies a romantic, who believes that empowered individuals — the quintessential “Marlboro” person can change the world. To do this San Jose is a far better door to walk through than Wall Street. Don’t be surprised if you see him at the “Burning Man” festival — the new technology parallel to the old world Davos — a fun meet of the free spirited and those who imagine a better world, held annually in the Nevada desert, over the Labor day weekend.

burning man

photo credit: heraldsun.au.com

Adapted from the article by the author in Asian Age October 1, 2015

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