MIAMI — Air Canada will launch Western Canada’s first nonstop service to India this fall when it commences thrice-weekly services from its Vancouver hub to Delhi, utilizing a Boeing 787 Dreamliner. The inaugural flight will commence on October 20, just ten days before its existing Toronto – Delhi nonstop service will expand from four weekly frequencies to a daily offering on October 30, 2016.
The proposed schedule for Air Canada’s Vancouver – Delhi service entails a late evening departure from Vancouver and a post-midnight arrival the following day into Delhi on the outbound sector, operating Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Return schedules from Delhi will leave at 06:30 and arrive just before 07:00 the same day.
The flight is scheduled to commence before the celebration of Diwali, which tends to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to India each year sometime between late October and early November. The flight timings will also fluctuate slightly due to Daylight Savings Time after November 6, with flights arriving into and departing from Delhi one hour earlier.
Air Canada has (finally) succeeded in India after decades of trial and error
Air Canada re-entered the Indian market for the third time in November 2015 after nearly a decade of absence from serving one of Canada’s largest immigrant countries. The Canadian flag carrier has a longstanding history of serving the Indian market, but encountered massive challenges up until receiving the 787 Dreamliner due to operational inefficiencies presented by its other widebody aircraft, which ultimately made nonstop Canada – India flights financially nonviable. However, following the success of its Toronto – Delhi nonstop flight that commenced last fall, Air Canada has finally calculated the correct formula to sustain service to India, a market that has deflected heavily towards fifth-freedom carriers serving Canada, such as Emirates, Etihad, Turkish Airlines and other European operators.
The Indian market tends to be price-sensitive, although large in volume, and the economics of the 787 provide the optimal seat capacity to fill up the forward cabins and sustain decent yields and load factor mixes on these flights. Air Canada has also increased density on their Toronto – Delhi flights by up-gauging to 787-9 series, which seats additional passengers and derives additional revenues while costs remain largely the same.
It also helps that India’s flag carrier, Air India, joined Star Alliance in July 2014, whose main hub is headquartered in Delhi. Both Air Canada and Air India have an extensive codeshare agreement as members of Star. Currently, Air Canada places its code on Air India-operated flights from Delhi to Amritsar, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata, as well as from Mumbai to Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata. Air India places its code on several Air Canada-operated flights from London Heathrow to Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Halifax and St. John’s, as well as Paris to Toronto and Montreal and Vancouver to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Vancouver – Delhi nonstop was originally scheduled before 9/11
Although Air Canada has served the Indian market off-and-on since the 1980s, it typically operated services via Europe as a 5th-freedom operation (it has alternated between London Heathrow and Zurich over the years). However, the original plan was to launch its first ever nonstop service to Delhi in October 2001 from Vancouver, rather than Toronto, owing to the massive immigrant community in the Greater Vancouver area hailing from the Northern Punjab region of India. In particular, the Surrey and Burnaby communities in British Columbia are home to hundreds of thousands of Canadians who identify as Punjabi Sikhs.
In March 2001, Air Canada announced that its first ever nonstop Canada – India flight would be operated 4 times weekly utilizing an Airbus A340, and would operate on a seasonal basis from October through April. It was also going to be Air Canada’s first-ever polar routing thanks to liberalized agreements with Russian civil airspace. However, Air Canada cancelled the route shortly after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, several weeks before the inaugural flight was supposed to start in October 2001. United was also gearing up to launch a nonstop Chicago O’Hare – Delhi flight that same month, and similarly had to shelve plans to serve India that year.
Air Canada later re-attempted to take advantage of the polar airspace agreements in 2003 to connect Canada with India, but chose to launch the nonstop route from Toronto instead of Vancouver, given that its Toronto hub is much larger in size than Vancouver. The route proved to be popular among passengers from both U.S. and Canadian points of sale and saved hours of transit time for customers.
However, even the Toronto route encountered numerous challenges a mere few weeks after startup due to political strife with Russian overflight authorities. Shortly after the route began in October 2003, Canada lost its authorities to enter into Russian aerospace (allegedly, Air Canada’s new Delhi-Toronto flight was siphoning a detrimentally large number of transit passengers who had been using Aeroflot’s 1-stop service via Moscow between Toronto and Delhi).
With these restrictions in place, Air Canada had to schedule a technical fuel stop in Stockholm on the westbound return from Delhi to Toronto, where it faced greater headwinds, thus inconveniencing passengers with an extra stopover that added additional transit time. Air Canada also had to bump passengers and luggage on the eastbound sector from Toronto in order to carry additional fuel to avoid Rusian aerospace. Overall, the situation was unfavorable and a PR nightmare for Air Canada.
Although the misfortunes were eventually reversed and the nonstop was restored, Air Canada chose to trade in the nonstop for a 1-stop connection via Zurich, down-gauging the aircraft from an Airbus A340 to a Boeing 767 due to high operational costs of the A340. On the plus side, service was expanded in frequency from 3 weekly to daily, and also gave Air Canada a presence in the lucrative Zurich-Delhi market. However, customers now had less incentive to choose Air Canada over the plethora of pre-existing 1-stop services on European, Asian and more recently, U.S. carriers such as Continental (now United) and American (since terminated) that flew nonstop to India from Newark and Chicago.
Furthermore, SWISS re-launched services from Zurich to Delhi in 2003, taking over some of the vestigial routes that had been vacated by Swissair, and competed directly with Air Canada. SWISS was a oneworld partner and provided a codeshare for American to serve Delhi and Mumbai over Zurich. When SWISS eventually was bought by Lufthansa in the late 2000s, and switched over to Star Alliance, Air Canada finally retreated from the Indian market and instead placed its code on SWISS-operated flights from Zurich to Delhi and Mumbai.
Air Canada will simultaneously compete with Air India
Air Canada will provide an attractive 1-stop option over Vancouver to reach Delhi from various cities in the Pacific Northwest, as well as U.S. West Coast, to reach the Subcontinent. In Toronto, the success of Air Canada’s Delhi flight has been achieved through creating a customer-friendly transit experience for short-haul feeder operations into AC’s Pearson hub, including domestic Canadian routes as well as trans-border USA routes. For local passengers, interestingly, the Greater Toronto area (GTA) hosts a South Asian diaspora who represent a broader array of regions in the subcontinent, including Punjabi, Bengali, Malayalee, Guarati, Marathi, Tamil and Goan roots.
In Vancouver, however, the vast majority tend to hail from the State of Punjab to the north. Moreover, without a Middle Eastern carrier present in Western Canada, Air Canada will face fewer competing 6th-freedom operators vying for Vancouver to Delhi traffic on its nonstop route. Furthermore, Air Canada has successfully built up Vancouver as a true trans-pacific gateway hub, with nonstop service to Tokyo, Seoul, Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Beijing, Osaka, Sydney and Brisbane.
Once again, the 787 has proven to be a great test-bed for global airlines to compete in realms where they had previously tried, failed or never managed to get off the ground. The Vancouver – Delhi flight will surely be a slam-dunk given the ethnic ties between Western Canada and India. The Star Alliance connections in Delhi will certainly help, and above all, the financial duress of Air Canada, far greater than it has been in many years, will provide ample runway for the route to prosper.