As president and CEO of one of Europe’s most prestigious flag carriers, Pieter Elbers was at the top of his game. He successfully navigated Dutch airline KLM through the 2010s and the worst of the pandemic – it seemed like there was little he couldn’t do.
So when it was announced in early 2022 that he wouldn’t seek a third term as KLM chief, many expected him to take on an easier, if not cozy, new job somewhere. Elbers would be safe in the knowledge that his name was already made.
What transpired was a totally different turn of events. The Dutchman was soon bound for Delhi to head up one of the country’s biggest businesses. This was a monumental challenge but an opportunity too good to resist for the aviation aficionado.
No Ordinary Carrier
IndiGo is India’s largest airline by fleet size and one of Airbus’ biggest customers. It boasts more than half of the nation’s total market share – no mean feat in the world’s most populous country.
Elbers’ brief upon joining the airline was clear but colossal. He was to develop and execute a strategic plan to transform IndiGo into a global powerhouse. Central to this goal was international expansion, but not at the expense of domestic growth.
Speaking to Skift on the fringes of the Wings India 2024 event in Hyderabad, Elbers outlined how the intra-India growth opportunity remains huge.
Last year, 153 million people traveled by air domestically in a country of more than 1.4 billion. By the end of the decade, this figure is expected to reach 300 million, and IndiGo intends to be a big part of that.
In simple terms, Elbers wants to double the airline’s capacity over the next seven years, mirroring national growth: “It’s no coincidence that doubling towards the end of the decade from 150 to 300 [million] for Indian domestic markets is also very much aligned with the ambition of IndiGo, of doubling between today and the end of the decade.”
From Big to Bigger
Elbers highlighted that India’s domestic air market is already the third largest in the world and the fifth largest internationally. In 2022, immediately after joining IndiGo, he said he wanted the airline to expand to more cross-border destinations in 2023. Despite industry-wide headwinds, the goal was met. IndiGo went from 26 international cities served in 2022, to 32 last year.
Put another way, the UAE coastal resort of Ras Al-Khaimah joined the route map as IndiGo’s 100th destination in September 2022. The carrier has added 18 more destinations since then. These include some that were not served by any other Indian airline, such as Baku, Tbilisi, and Almaty in Central Asia.
“Looking at the size of the population, India’s taken its rightful place on the global stage. That’s really helping to further boost international travel, so that’s been a very important cornerstone of our strategy.”
Alongside its international growth, IndiGo has simultaneously added new services within India. The airline now operates a staggering 400 routes across the country, representing more than 2,000 daily departures. Over 100 million customers were carried in 2023. Elbers quipped that 22 million additional passengers it served last year was the equivalent of adding an entire regional airline into the business.
In conversation with Skift, Elbers echoed the recent remarks of Remi Maillard, President and Managing Director of Airbus India. He joked that the 2023 Paris Air Show might be more accurately described as an Indian Airshow that happened to take place in France.
Behind the humor is a tangible argument – India dominated last year’s gathering of global aviators. IndiGo alone ordered 500 Airbus A320neo family aircraft at the show, joining Air India, which formally signed its blockbuster deal for 470 aircraft – a mix of Boeing and Airbus units.
However, as any airline chief waiting on a 737 Max 10 or 777X will tell you, an aircraft order doesn’t always guarantee timely delivery. With so many of his counterparts bemoaning supply chain problems and maintenance snags – what’s Elbers’ take on the issue?
The CEO is upbeat about meeting IndiGo’s targets. This is despite the groundings that have been forced upon it by powder metal problems with some Pratt and Whitney engines in its A320neo fleet: “This whole supply chain issue has been going on for quite a while already, and we have been able to buy a whole range of mitigating measures to live up to our capacity guidance.”
Elbers said the airline is softening the blow by extending leases on its older generation aircraft, as well as bringing in 11 A320s on wet-lease from SmartLynx Airlines.
Even More Growth in 2024
Elbers also confirmed that IndiGo intends to continue its cross-border expansion this year. With Indian carriers currently holding less than 50% of the international market share, the Dutchman spies a great opportunity. By 2030, expect plenty more destinations on the route map.
The IndiGo chief alludes to the fact that 65% of the global population lives within the range of the aircraft IndiGo already operates. The imminent arrival of the A321XLR will enable the firm to go deeper into Europe and parts of Asia and Australia it can’t currently reach.
The existing roster of A321s allows the airline to fly as far as Istanbul from India, but Elbers’ ambitions go further. Among the destinations hinted at for the XLR (or Xtra Long Range) jet are Rome and Athens.
While the arrival of Airbus’ new flagship narrowbody is grabbing headlines, it’s the sheer volume of aircraft in the IndiGo order book that is mesmerizing. Elbers reveals that the carrier has at least one new aircraft due for delivery every week for the decade.
To support this growth, the airline has been busy bolstering its pilot pipeline. Since 2011, it has partnered with training specialists CAE to run its cadet pilot program. More than 900 people have been inducted into the company in this way, with many more expected to follow.
Despite being the country’s biggest airline, Elbers describes IndiGo’s market penetration as still being “relatively limited.” In his view, there is more to be done to tap into the enormous potential inside the country and beyond.
With this in mind, the carrier recently signed a collaboration agreement with the new Noida International Airport. The facility is due to become the second airport for Delhi when it comes online in late 2024 or early 2025. Elbers said the airline would need to collaborate even more to innovate further.
And while a healthy Airbus order book is great, it will only go so far without the right oversight. To ensure the airline’s growing operations are as efficient as possible, IndiGo is prioritizing digitization. Elbers said the company recently upgraded its reservation platform, which will allow it to do a lot more on the partnerships and codeshare front.
At the Wings India event, IndiGo and GMR Airports also laid the foundation for a new consortium. Although specific details were not immediately forthcoming, the core principle is that the airline and airport operator will focus on enhancing operational efficiency and passenger experience. Expect to hear more about this in the coming months.
At KLM, Elbers was hugely popular with colleagues at all levels of the company – a characteristic not always assured at a major airline. Despite his pursuit of dizzying growth, it seems this human touch hasn’t gone away. To the envy of many of his peers, he has somehow found a way to stay mentally grounded at a time when the airline is reaching new heights.