High Fares, Low Capacity Keep Air Travel Below Pre-Covid Levels: Ixigo CEO

Ixigo got the nod for its Rs 1,600 crore IPO last year, but is still waiting for the right window to go ahead with the issue.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Travel (Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash)</p></div>
Travel (Photo by Erik Odiin on Unsplash)

Air travel in the country is still below the pre-Covid levels due to high ticket prices and slower ramp-up in capacity, even as rail and bus segments have already crossed pre-pandemic numbers, according to Aloke Bajpai of ixigo.

Having received the nod from the capital markets regulator for its Rs 1,600-crore initial public offering last year, the travel platform is still waiting for the right window to go ahead with the issue, Bajpai, group chief executive officer and co-founder of ixigo, told BQ Prime.

Bajpai spoke about the company’s future plans, surviving in the travel platform market and the big opportunity in converting users into transacting customers.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

When is the IPO?

Our SEBI approval is valid until mid-December this year, and as and when we think we have the right window, we will go ahead.

Are the current high airfares completely driven by demand or are there other factors in play as well?

It’s largely driven by two things: one is obviously the demand, but the other is the capacity and supply that is being deployed. If you look at the environment for the past six months, oil has been at $90 or more most of the time, and airlines have been very conservative in adding more capacity. Smaller airlines have not added capacity as fast as they were doing pre-Covid.

Because of this, there are choke points on certain routes. Recently, we saw during the Diwali rush, Mumbai-Delhi was sold out. Last-minute fares were 3 times for most routes due to the festive rush.

This kind of demand is expected around the festive period and if there was more capacity addition, we would have sustained fares that were lower and fulfilled greater demand.

We had already touched 4,00,000 daily pax in the first week of October and we need more capacity in the system to sustain pre-Covid levels of air traffic. We need fares to come down by at least 10-12%.

How important do you think is the interplay between different modes of transport?

There is definitely a huge interplay between all the modes of transport. If we look at the typical behaviour for middle-class travelers, they will obviously want to first look at train connectivity and prices, and then look at airfares on flights, and then decide on the basis of the tradeoff, how much time they want to spend in the journey.

I think that’s where trains in India are running completely choc-a-bloc. Capacity addition on trains as well has been rather slow. Even 300 Vande Bharat trains were supposed to be added, but they are slowly getting added.

A big challenge is the average speed of the train in the ecosystem. Unless it increases, adding more trains will get more difficult because you must have the average speed of the whole ecosystem going above 80-90 kmph and touching 100 kmph in order to add more trains.

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Aloke Bajpai, group CEO and co-founder, ixigo (Source: company)

In some shorter routes, a trend has been observed that people are moving from trains and opting for flights. Have you also observed that?

What is happening is flights are expensive and trains have limited availability. Because of this, buses have really picked up in the last few months. Road connectivity is improving, and road infrastructure is also getting better in our country. So, that part of the market is doing well.

In buses, you can deploy more assets quickly to increase capacity as it is not dependent on government permissions or challenges like flights need to have slots in advance, and trains facing infrastructure challenges of adding more capacity. Because of these advantages, the overall bus market is bouncing back very sharply.

Are the gains in the bus segment mostly at the expense of trains?

Logically speaking, the whole market should have been above pre-Covid levels by now, but two of the transportation verticals are struggling with capacity and airfare issues. So, buses are benefiting from that spill-over demand. It is an opportunity loss for both airlines and railways, predominantly on sub-500 km routes.  

What is your company’s revenue breakup?

Trains is our most important contributor for both tickets and revenue, followed by flights and buses.

You said in one of your earlier interviews that among the people looking at your platform, not many are transacting users, and that is a big opportunity for the company. What’s your monthly active user count right now and how many of them are transacting customers?

About 6.3 crore monthly active users are using our platform across ixigo trains, flights, ConfirmTkt and AbhiBus apps. And if you look at the number of transacting users in a month, the number is over 40 lakh users.

Are there any targets in your mind? How many of them can you convert over the years?

If you see this ratio, it has increased year-on-year because we have been proactively cross-selling and up-selling this audience, making them more aware about the various transactional modes of transport that we support.

A lot of people had downloaded ixigo initially for utility on the trains side, for our features like live running status, PNR status, coach position, etc.

Over time, when we became transactional, we started getting those people to transact and buy train tickets from us and now what we are seeing is many of those have also started migrating and buying bus and flight tickets.

Across ixigo and ConfirmTkt, we have cross-populated these verticals, so that if somebody is looking for a train and everything is waitlisted, they can quickly switch to the buses and the flights section for more options. We want to make sure anyone who is coming to our platform to go from A to B should leave with a ticket in their hand.

Some of those product improvements, some organic marketing initiatives and launching value-added services like ixigo Assured and Flex has helped increase the conversion rate.

How has the recovery been in the mid-tier and the budget segment?

Mid-tier and budget segments have bounced back much faster than tier-1 side, because if you look at last year, trains had already bounced back to pre-Covid levels and flights were at 75-80% of pre-Covid levels at the end of the last financial year.

So, flights are taking more time to recover and the main reason for that is the high airfares and capacity issues. Buses should reach pre-Covid levels by the end of this year.

If you talk about ixigo, we ended fiscal 2022 at 3.4 times pre-Covid revenue. And in the first quarter of FY23, we have maintained the growth momentum. So, in terms of recovery, we were probably the fastest to not just recover but also exceed pre-Covid levels of transactions, traffic, revenue and GTV (gross transaction value).

We have been serving the more resilient tier-II/III/IV traveller market, which was impacted less by the pandemic and bounced back faster.

How much of this mid-tier and budget segment is contributing to your overall revenues?

Close to 95% of our bookings are to and from tier-II/III cities. So, we are very tier II/III intensive in our transaction base.

You did some acquisitions last yearConfirmTkT & AbhiBus. Any plans to extend your presence in the hotels segment through acquisitions?

Until now we have been very focused on transportation, getting people from A to B, being able to do a multi-modal comparison of these modes and allow people to find various ways of making this journey. So, the core is around utility, and we added transactions on top. Categories like hotels require a lot of work and some time in the future, we will want to become more transactional there as well. Our current focus is on growing our trains, flights, and bus verticals.

Do you think the OTA (online travel agent) industry is a crowded space and needs consolidation, or is there enough room to invite more players?

We have been in this industry for 16 years and I can't remember a single year where there were not 5-6 players in the market. It's a space that has seen waves of consolidation in the past and globally, if you see in Europe and the U.S., I have not seen a winner-take-all situation in travel.

Because each vertical is so large in each market, the winner on hotel might not be the winner on flights, and the winner on train might not be a winner on hotels and so on. And the fact of life in the app world is you tend to go to specialists.

So, if people believe we are the specialists in train booking and utility, it is unlikely they will go anywhere else. Once you build a relationship of trust with a user, as long as you don’t break that trust, people are willing to take that leap of faith for other categories for you.

We are probably the only player in the market that is more focused on the NBU (next billion users) segment, while most of the other players have historically been more centered around flights and hotels. So, from that perspective, I think we are fairly unique.

Would you say you are looking to increase the percentage of revenue coming from segments other than railways?

Over time what will happen is, if you look at mature markets like Europe, a lot of cities are within 2,000 km of each other. Once the infrastructure in any country matures, in the customer’s head, the decision-making between flights, trains and bus becomes difficult.

In flights, you need to reach the airport a couple of hours in advance, while in trains, you are leaving from the center of the city, so it's convenient.

For shorter routes, buses have actually become a faster choice of transport than trains with the road infrastructure improving. So, what is exciting for us is that across all these three modes, is there a way we can become the best at solving how do you go from A to B and allowing you to look at all the trade-offs between these modes so that the user can decide the best option for them.

Is there an ultimate goal to become an end-to-end travel partner of the customer so that they get complete solutions?

We believe that it is not just about booking tickets but the entire experience of a customer with us that matters, right from the beginning when a user is trying to get information about their journey, information on their train status, etc.

We also want to deliver a seamless post-booking experience, which we are currently doing with our personalised travel assistant TARA, powered by deep learning. TARA currently answers over 86% of customer support queries without human intervention end-to-end.

By applying such AI technology, we are in a better position to offer the best options to our customers, such as deal discovery, personalised recommendations, fare predictions, train delay information, and PNR confirmation status.

Even value-added services that we have launched like ixigo Assured, offering full refunds on all domestic flight bookings at a nominal charge, and ixigo Flex, offering free rescheduling services, are helping us to acquire new customers and build a loyal user base.

Are you planning any more acquisitions post-IPO or will you focus on  growing organically?

We are profitable. In the first quarter of FY23, we did Rs 8.7 crore PAT and we did positive cash flow as well that quarter. So, going forward, this funding is more to double down on growth in strategic areas.

And that will be through either investments and acquisitions or new verticals that we want to build and launch...

Our recent acquisitions, ConfirmTkt and AbhiBus, are playing out well. We are proud to report that ConfirmTkt has grown revenues from Rs 372.36 million (Rs 37.24 crore) in FY21 to Rs 1,282.05 million (Rs 128.21 crore) in FY22, a 244.30% increase. Through the acquisition of the bus business of AbhiBus, we have effectively become the second-largest bus OTA in India.

We like to acquire companies that are run by committed founders who want to build a profitable business. We will continue looking at such assets and founders, who have a passion for the same space and the same culture as we have.