Are those who fly the richest in India?

(I wrote it, and my ex-colleague Pabitra Chatterjee polished it. Thanks Pabitra!)

Indian skies are booming, just like the rest of India. Every second person seems to be flying… your colleague three levels below… your friend who never had enough dough to pay restaurant bills… your uncle who’d think twice about taking a 3-tier AC train berth… your neighbour who just graduated to a second-hand old Maruti 800… even the maid, who proudly announces that she’s taking a FLIGHT to join her memsahib in Mumbai!

News reports are full of impressive statistics. Airlines from India ordered the largest number of aircrafts at the Paris air show. Kingfisher was amongst the first airlines to order Airbus 380.

Compared to just 42 cities you could fly till three years ago, you can now reach almost anywhere within a few hours, via a direct or hopping flight. The number of cities connected by air today number over 75!

Airports have started resembling railway stations. The queues at check-in counters perhaps beat the queues at railway booking counters, which, thanks to IRCTC, have shortened. Air tickets can be bought at the post office! (You still have to visit an Inter State Bus Station to buy bus tickets though).

All this boils down to a simple question: Is a media or marketing strategy aimed at flyers still selective enough? Let’s do some ‘back of the envelope’ math.

Given the capacity of all the airlines together, a total of 55 million seats will be in the market this year. At about 72% capacity utilization, that’s roughly 40 million (non-unique) passengers.

Assuming there are quite a few who fly frequently, the number of unique passengers would be somewhat lower. Jet Airways has over a million members in its frequent flyer program Jet Privilege; ditto for other airlines. These frequent flyers would take at least 6 flights a year: Many fly more, as many as 4 to 6 times a month. This means the around a couple of million frequent flyers should account for 18-20 million of the seats sold.

That leaves 20 million seats, which fits well with a guesstimate of a quarter of a million first-time flyers every month, and about 10 million or so taking a single flight.

The total of unique passengers would, all told, be around 15-18 million.

And that, my friend, is just about 1.6% of India’s population! Or, about 6% of our urban population, if you’d like to believe only urbanites fly.

Compare these with cable and satellite households in India – 100 million, or a reach of 450 million people – that’s nearly every urbanite! Or compare these with the households owning cars and other four wheelers – 7-8 million families, close to 20 million persons (this fits well with our estimate of unique flyers, more so when we presume that almost everyone who can fly can enjoy a car).

Let’s look at those figures from another angle. Our survey shows, and every frequent flyer knows, that 4 out of 5 flyers are men. Now, men are also ¾ of the (out of home) workforce. And all consumer research agrees that even where women take the purchase decision, men exert a strong influence.

So we can safely say that, in spite of the hype and perceptions, the new flyer isn’t quite the ‘common man’, much less the ‘typical Indian woman’. Those up there are those on the top of the pyramid on ground, India’s most affluent and influential consumers. And if you’re aiming high, you’re still aiming right.

Perhaps that’s not so good news for the economy, but most reassurance for any marketer in search of his market.


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