Exclusive interview: Giorgio De Roni – CEO GoAir – Part 1: GoAir is profitable

Over the last 18 months, the soft spoken Giorgio De Roni has been quietly turning around the Wadia family promoted GoAir. From a rock bottom position, dismal market share, and reputation for frequent cancellations, De Roni has grown GoAir to surpass Kingfisher Airlines and JetLite in market share, and made GoAir a contender in the Indian airline industry, with the confidence to place large orders for 72 Airbus A320neo aircraft.

In a broad ranging two-on-one interview, Devesh Agarwal and Vinay Bhaskara spoken to De Roni. During the interview, De Roni dispelled the misconception that IndiGo is the only profitable airline in India.

GoAir is profitable, and this profit is achieved purely by operations, without the income from sale and lease back of aircraft.

In the first of this two part report, we cover the financial and strategic aspects of the interview.

Q: In March this year, at India Aviation, Mr. Dinesh Keskar was saying that India is having “profitless growth.” Airlines were experiencing growth in passenger numbers but profits were very hard to come by. In less than 3-4 months, growth has stagnated, but profits are there. What are your thoughts on this odd situation?

My thoughts are that the industry should not operate below cost of production. Unfortunately the situation in the past in India was that most competitors were more interested in market share rather than profit. So I more than welcome the shift in strategy from most of my competitors. And this has brought fares in line with costs, and in fact we have been able to deliver a profit for the first quarter.

Q: Any numbers you could share?

No, not really, we are not a listed company and as a policy, we do not share our results. I can say, that I am relatively satisfied of the results. The net profit was in percentage terms higher than IATA average, and differently from some of my competitors, it was purely reached by operational factors; so by revenue from passengers, and not from non-operational sources [referring to sale and leaseback income and other non passenger sources of revenue]. I never comment on my competitors, I try to learn from them…. And it’s [Sale and lease-back income] not something that only happens in India.

Editor’s Note: The IATA figure is 1.4%. Since GoAir’s figures came purely from passenger revenues, they outperformed the passenger figures at both SpiceJet and Jet Airways.

Q: You were mentioning your fellow competitors. If you look over the past year at your fellow LCC competitors, both SpiceJet and IndiGo have pursued a rather aggressive growth in their own form. SpiceJet has been going into virgin territory withthe Q400 in to Tier II and Tier III markets, and IndiGo has been adding a new A320 literally every 3 weeks; and they have gained a lot by the implosion or the contraction, of Kingfisher. However, GoAir has pursued a very modest growth path. In fact we think you’ve added only one aircraft net in the last year.

In this financial year we added two net aircraft. One in April and one in August, with a third one coming in January 2013. Yes, we have a more cautious approach to growth. We are exclusively targeting profitability and not really market share. We do have an ambitious expansion plan, and in fact last year we ordered 72 A320neos.

So we are committed to better serve the country. I think that we had some advantage in being a small carrier last year. Our losses were limited. It’s an airline 100% owned by the [Wadia] family . They are committed to the airline business, but I feel personally that we can grow only if we deliver profit. So I would prefer to deliver a profit and remain small as opposed to growing rapidly and having challenges on the bottom-line.

Q: Could you describe what trends you’ve seen in the unit PRASK revenues (passenger revenue per available seat kilometer) in the past several months, because we do know that SpiceJet recorded PRASK growth of more than 17% and Jet Airways recorded PRASK growth of more than 15% on its domestic network. Are you seeing similar numbers?

Yes, I would say that we are pretty satisfied of the [PRASK] growth. What is inconvenient is that the cost structure also suffered a significant increase. Airport charges increased due to the devaluation of the rupee against the dollar, fuel prices increased heavily. Since September 1st, I think we reached the historical peak of the cost of fuel in India, which is not the case in other parts of the world. So I just wonder how we structure the cost of fuel in India versus other geographical areas.

Q: Is it possible for you to share in percentage terms roughly the breakup of costs at GoAir?

Fuel costs are about 50%, more precisely it might reach around 55% of our total cost now with fuel at Rs. 72 per litre? That is the figure I remember most clearly, because it is a huge amount. I would say that the cost of personnel is pretty efficient, also because the most expensive community, the pilots are pretty well utilized with more than 900 hours per year, the cap being 1,000 per year in India. Certainly we are suffering from the weakness of the Rupee as far as lease rentals and maintenance costs are concerned; due to the fact that maintenance is performed primarily with US dollars.

Q: And you did mention airport charges?

Of course airport charges are huge. You are aware that Delhi Airport increased charges by 334%. It was a number that did not meet their expectation of a 700% increase. But I’m challenging anyone to find any other airport in the world with such a huge increase year by year.

And this is a serious concern.

Of course when we say that fares have increased year over year, we have to consider that we have to shift to the customer the burden of increasing costs. Because we cannot absorb any increase in costs, we have to transfer them to the customer. What is the result? The result is that volume and demand have decreased, as the data in June and July have shown.

So I don’t think that the way airports keep growing their costs and increase their inefficiency is smart. At the end of the day, they suffer due to a decrease in demand.

Q: Can you give us a brief financial outlook for the next year, and then maybe 3 years out?

Well I can tell you that we forecast to achieve a profit at the end of the year. Of course the first quarter was positive. The second quarter was the weakest from a cyclical point of view of the financial year, so we are definitely suffering. That said, for the entirety of the year, I am relatively confident that we will deliver a profit.

Q: What do you assume will be your revenue growth over the next one and three years, relative to 2011-12?

Well what is important to us is to remain flexible. Although we have a purchase order for roughly 80 aircraft between today and 2020, we should bear in mind that if the market is not growing, if there are turbulences, we have to be more flexible and be cautious. Or if the market offers more opportunities, we have the flexibility to take more aircraft and our part of the growth.

Q: Do you currently have any purchase options for the A320neo?

We don’t have options at the moment. 72 A320neo and the 7 remaining A320 classic orders are all firm. Anyway you know that there is a sort of over-production of narrow-body aircraft. And it’s not really a problem to add aircraft if the market requires.

Q: How do you think valuations in the used market are looking as both the 737MAX and A320neo are coming closer to delivery? Are you finding any impact on the secondary markets?

The residual value will be impacted definitely. We still have to see whether those manufacturers will deliver as per the schedule, or if, as it is normally, there might be some delays. But the impact on the present values might be negative.

Q: GoAir has selected the PurePower (Pratt and Whitney GTF) engine for the A320neo. And we’ve heard that CFM has not quite been able to deliver on the performance parameters of the LEAP-X?

I would disagree. First of all, we are very satisfied with CFM engines for the current fleet. Then, as I told you a few minutes ago, I don’t want to go for over-promising. And I don’t like my providers to over-promise. And since I’m not commenting on my competitors, I don’t understand why my provider comments on their competitors. They are free to do whatever they like.

[Editor’s note: Our source of information on the LEAP-X engine is not Pratt and Whitney]

Q: So can you talk about some of the factors that drove your decision to purchase the PurePower engine?

So we did an overall evaluation from a financial and technical point of view and in the end we found Pratt and Whitney’s proposal to be better. But this is not to say that we are not satisfied with the present [CFM] engines that we have on our fleet.

Q: You did mention aircraft program delays briefly. And since both Boeing and Airbus have had trouble with delays recently on the 787 and A350 programs respectively, how concerned are you about delays [on deliveries].

We are among the first carriers in the world to receive the A320neo in the first quarter of 2016. So far, I do not expect any delays. But we aware that in new aircraft, some delays might happen. Although, considering that 95% of the airframe is common to the current airframe, and considering that the same engine technology will be utilized on other aircraft in the next year, I feel relatively confident that Airbus will be able to deliver the aircraft as per schedule. You are aware that anyhow that we have current engine A320s on order, and so we are not really planning for an environment with delays. But it might happen.

Q: Will GoAir be adding Sharklets to its A320 classic fleet?

Yes, our next [A320] delivery in January will be with Sharklets. In fact, I think we will be among the first airlines to have sharklets; most probably the first in India, though it’s not really a race against IndiGo.

[Editor’s note: Sharklets are new wingtip devices fitted on the A320 family aircraft]

Q: Has Airbus indicated the possibility of retroffiting sharklets?

Yes they have. There is no clear picture on the cost involved and the time-frame of grounding the aircraft. As soon as they come out with a final picture, we will evaluate. We are keen to reduce fuel burn, both for savings and for the pollution reason.

Q: What sort of numbers are you looking at in terms of fuel burn reduction from the Sharklets?

Based on our network, we are looking at something around 1.5% savings.

Q: And what about the A320neo?

On paper, they [Airbus] say that there will be a saving in the range of 15%. That would be a great achievement.

Q: Your order for 72 A320neos have a list price of almost $5.6 billion dollars, which will require around $280 million in upfront financing costs. How is GoAir planning to pay for this order?

[De Roni laughs] Your calculation is pretty precise.

We are well funded. If there are opportunities in the market we will consider them carefully, but there is no concern [about paying for the aircraft].

Q: So there is no feeling at GoAir that it is time to turn to the public market with an IPO?

Well inside the company last year, there was a project to develop an IPO. It was not pursued due to the overall position of the market. We are open, but that is a question that needs to be asked of the chief shareholder. I will say that overall we are comfortable with the funding for the next set of deliveries.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interesting interview. Comments and feedback are always welcome.

About Devesh Agarwal

A electronics and automotive product management, marketing and branding expert, he was awarded a silver medal at the Lockheed Martin innovation competition 2010. He is ranked 6th on Mashable's list of aviation pros on Twitter and in addition to Bangalore Aviation, he has contributed to leading publications like Aviation Week, Conde Nast Traveller India, The Economic Times, and The Mint (a Wall Street Journal content partner). He remains a frequent flier and shares the good, the bad, and the ugly about the Indian aviation industry without fear or favour.

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