Omicron Could Push Air Traffic Recovery into Fiscal 2024: Report
Moneylife Digital Team 13 January 2022
The Omicron-led third wave of the pandemic could pose fresh turbulence for air traffic, pushing full recovery into fiscal 2024 from an earlier expectation of it happening in fiscal 2023. At the same time, an uptick in tariffs, liquidity and refinancing ability will cushion credit quality of airport operators, says a research note.
 
In the report, rating agency CRISIL says, “A material impact on the credit quality of airport operators, however, is unlikely as the dip in revenue is expected to be limited by a likely strong rebound, and operators have adequate debt servicing cushions, liquidity buffers and financial flexibility to absorb the blip in traffic.”
 
An analysis of the top-4 private airports, Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, which accounted for about 90% of air passenger traffic handled by private airports and around 50% of all passenger traffic last fiscal, indicates as much.
 
According to Manish Gupta, senior director of CRISIL Ratings, the high infection rate of Omicron has resulted in several state governments and local authorities, such as Delhi and Mumbai, announcing restrictions on movement. 
 
“In fact, domestic traffic is down by 25% from the highs of December 2021 in the first week of January 2022 itself. Both personal and business travel will take a hit in January and February, leading to air traffic plunging an estimated 30% sequentially in the fourth quarter of this fiscal,” he says.
 
This spill-over impact is likely to delay air traffic recovery from CRISIL’s earlier expectation of it happening in fiscal 2023. However, it says, recovery is expected to be achieved within the early part of fiscal 2024 because air traffic is likely to rebound faster this time around, compared with the second wave, when it took from May to November 2021 to recover from about 16% to 85% of the fiscal 2020 traffic.
 
According to the rating agency, the rebound confidence is underpinned by a higher proportion of vaccinated populace—over 71% now vis-à-vis only about 5% as of the end of May 2021—as well as learnings of governments and authorities from the past waves in implementing COVID-19 protocols for safe travel. The caseload, too, is expected to peak in February and return to the December 2021 level by the end of March 2022.
 
As a result, CRISIL says, revenues of airport operators for fiscal 2023 and 2024 are likely to remain stable. “What will further aid revenues is the expected uptick in tariffs. As per the recently released tariff orders for the Bengaluru and Hyderabad airports, the tariffs will more than double from April 2022. Consequently, debt servicing cushions should remain adequate at over 1.2 times for these airports in fiscals 2023 and 2024,” it added.
 
Ankit Hakhu, director of CRISIL Ratings, feels that the credit quality of the airport sector is likely to sustain the Omicron impact. “In addition to the adequate debt servicing cushions, the credit quality is supported by a healthy liquidity cover of around six months of debt obligation over fiscal 2023 and strong financial flexibility,” he says.
 
Healthy financial flexibility stems from the long remaining concession life of over 40 years compared with the debt tenure of around 10-18 years. This ‘tail’, according to CRISIL,  provides flexibility to push back repayment and structure debt obligations, if required, to match traffic recovery. In fact, these airports raised over Rs3,200 crore in 2021 to refinance the bulk of 2022 upcoming repayments.
 
“That said, the credit profiles remain sensitive to the evolution of the virus. A deeper-than-anticipated impact of Omicron on mobility and the economy or a more-than-expected upsurge in COVID-19 cases may breach our recovery estimates,” the rating agency concludes.
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