RQ | Comparing Airline Pricing across countries

The WSJ reports, based on a survey, that airline prices are cheapest in India (HT: Nitin Pai). They evaluate the cost of flying in terms of cost per 100 km. The usual ridiculous comparisons that go with any such article are present in full here – they compare the per kilometer cost of flying to train and bus fares, and conclude that flying is cheapest (this reminds me of an equally ridiculous report in the Times of India which showed that the cost of India’s Mars mission was less than that of taking a bus in Mumbai).

A few thoughts on this report by the WSJ:

  • Per km is a wrong way at looking at air fares. In most markets (from my experience pricing air tickets and cargo), fares are set based on competition and to fill capacity. Notice that marginal cost of a passenger is really really low, so once a flight is in place airlines will do what they can to maximize their revenues from that.
  • Taking this forward air fares depend on the competition in a particular sector (btw, the way airlines price it, Bangalore-Barcelona is one sector, and the price of that doesn’t depend on the Bangalore-Frankfurt and Frankfurt-Barcelona prices. These are three independent markets and triangle inequality doesn’t necessarily hold. Just FYI). So going by the report, India has a lot more competition compared to other countries in most sectors.
  • Now think of other large countries (you need big area for flights to make sense) and think of their income levels compared to India. Only developed countries and other BRICS come to mind. All of them have a higher willingness to pay than India.
  • Airline prices are thus a function of simple (elastic) demand and (inelastic – flight schedules are announced by “season”) supply. So once in a season we have a lot of flights scheduled, competitive forces push prices down
  • Given that it’s demand and supply that determines airline prices and not costs, in my opinion the airline industry goes through cycles. You have lots of competing airlines. Prices are low and they lose money. In the course of time one or two go out of business or scale down, and that leads to increased prices. Airlines make money for a while, and then looking at the supernormal profits you have new entrants and so on. India right now is going through the phase where you aer getting more investors (Air Asia, Air Costa, Tata-SIA, etc.). That depresses prices. In a year or so I would think someone like SpiceJet will go out of business and that might push fares up for a while.
  • There’s also the seasonality factor – based on regular travel to Bombay over the last two years I’ve found that fares in the monsoon months are half of the fares at any other point in the year. It’s a function of demand, again (Indian seasons don’t exactly tally with international seasons according to which schedules are made, so this results in flawed matching)! Given the timing of the piece it is possible that Indian fares in the monsoon months have been sampled.