Flight cancellations affected 1.5 lakh people since Dec. 2023

The number of passengers affected even when 1-2% flights get cancelled in a month is staggering. 
| Photo Credit: Kannal Achuthan 10042@Chennai

Since December 2023, hundreds of cancellations and poor on-time performance of airlines have left thousands of people stranded at airports across India. Between March 31 and April 3 this year, 150 Vistara flights were cancelled and 200 flights were delayed by more than two hours. On May 8, Air India Express cancelled 90 of its 360 flights. Similar cancellations, though not at this scale, were recorded across many large airlines at various points this year.

The recent crisis to hit the aviation industry is fuelled by the unavailability of crew. In the case of Air India Express, about 200 cabin crew reported “sick”. In the case of Vistara too, crew unavailability was cited as the reason. There has been a mismatch between demand and supply of crew amid the expansion of the network.

The new troubles have come just as the aviation industry has started shrugging off the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which resulted in record losses for all airlines. During the first few months of the pandemic, in 2020, passenger flow came to a halt as airlines were grounded. In later months, passenger flow trickled in as airlines had to follow pandemic-related protocols. Despite that, airlines continued to pay salaries, airport fees, and aircraft and engine rentals and thus faced heavy losses. Later in 2022, when passenger flow returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, aviation fuel prices shot up. Airlines continued to suffer since passing on the fuel price to customers was not an option.

Chart 1 | The chart shows the cancellation rate of various airlines month-wise in the January 2022-March 2024 period. The bigger and darker the box, the higher the cancellation rate. 

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In January 2024, 5% of IndiGo’s flights, 3.4% of SpiceJet’s flights, and about 2% of Air India’s flights were cancelled. Even in the month prior, cancellations ranged between 1% and 2% for these airlines.

Chart 2 | The chart shows the number of passengers affected by cancellations. 

While the cancellation rate may statistically appear insignificant, the absolute number of passengers affected even when 1-2% flights get cancelled in a month is staggering. For instance, in the four months between December 2023 and March 2024, 1.5 lakh passengers couldn’t travel due to cancellations. When an airline with a significantly higher number of scheduled flights cancels even 1% of its flights, the number of passengers affected too is considerably higher. which explains the bigger boxes for IndiGo. In total, since January 2022, 6.5 lakh passengers have been affected by cancellations.

Chart 3 | The chart shows complaints about refunds as a share of total complaints received by airlines month-wise in the January 2022-March 2024 period.

Cancellations result in a demand for refunds by passengers. Data show that the refund process has not been smooth. In 2022, across many months, over 25% of the total complaints were about refunds. In 2023 and 2024, this share reduced to 15%, which is commendable given the high number of cancellations. But problems persist.

Chart 4 | The chart shows the on-time performance of airlines, based on data from the Bengaluru, Delhi, Hyderabad, and Mumbai airports. The figure in the chart corresponds to the % of on-time (with some margin) landings and take-offs. 

The on-time performance of airlines has also been drastically falling in the past two years. In December 2023, the on-time performance of all major airlines fell to the lowest level in two years (SpiceJet: 30%, Air India: 47.6%, IndiGo: 60%). The poor on-time performance continued in 2024 as well. In the last two years, 45 lakh passengers have been impacted by this issue.

Also read | The controversy over Boeing’s bestselling 737 MAX and its impact in India | Data 

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