MIAMI — Air India is adding its fifth U.S. destination in July 2017 with the resumption of service to Washington Dulles, which it served briefly as an extension of its daily flight from Delhi to New York JFK between December 2009 and April 2010.
The re-launch of Washington Dulles will be a nonstop route to Delhi, rather than a tag-on from New York without carrying rights, and will be operated on a Boeing 777-200LR.
The growth in the Americas region underscores Air India’s confidence in overseas expansion following several commercial milestones achieved since 2010, including the addition of the Boeing 787 to its fleet program in 2013 and the integration into Star Alliance in 2014.
Another key part of the commercial strategy was shifting its primary intercontinental hub from Mumbai to Delhi, which has occurred gradually over the past decade.
But even as the shift occurred, Air India was highly underrepresented as a long-haul, international carrier option for traffic into Delhi in 2010, offering nonstop service to only 16 foreign markets: Abu Dhabi, Bangkok, Paris CDG, Dammam, Dubai, Frankfurt, Hong Kong, Jeddah, New York JFK, London Heathrow, Tokyo Narita, Chicago O’Hare, Shanghai, Riyadh, Singapore and Toronto.
Since then, Air India has added service to Bahrain, Rome, Milan, Kabul, Madrid, Muscat, Melbourne, Male, Moscow, San Francisco, Sydney and Vienna. It has converted full-service on its Abu Dhabi route to its low-cost subsidiary, Air India Express, and will add service to Copenhagen in May 2017.
Combined with the Washington Dulles addition, Air India will have added 14 new destinations to its route map from Delhi since 2010. Combined with new service on Air India Express to Dhaka and Tehran, both of which will commence in March, Air India and its subsidiaries will offer a total of 31 foreign markets from its Delhi hub (the carrier has suspended nonstop flights to Toronto as of July 2012).
This raises Air India’s profile as a much stronger competitor in the inbound and outbound Indian aviation sector, compared to historical levels where it was rendered a distant secondary, if not tertiary, option to the Middle Eastern, European and Asian carriers.
In essence, the 787 was probably the strongest driver in allowing Air India to expand its presence in the foreign market. The Dreamliner, which was deemed to be a, “hub buster” when it entered into scheduled service in 2012, appeared to have the opposite effect with Air India in that it enabled the historically unprofitable, state-owned carrier to turn operating profits on several of its loss-making routes, particularly to Europe.
Thanks to the advent of the Dreamliner, Air India has been able to add cities like Birmingham, Melbourne and Sydney to its network, appealing largely to the Punjabi immigrant diaspora located in the northern U.K. and Southeastern Australia. Elsewhere, the 787 has permitted Air India to enter into high-demand, but traditionally lower-yielding leisure routes such as Madrid and Rome, and also add links to cities like Moscow and Vienna which attract higher-yielding corporate and political traffic.
Air India currently has 22 787-8s in service, with an additional 5 on order to be delivered through 2018-2019. It also has 15 777s in service, of which 3 belong to the 777-200LR variant while the remaining 12 are 777-300ERs. It currently deploys its 777-200LRs to San Francisco and London Heathrow from Delhi while the 777-300ERs are flown from Delhi to Chicago, New York, Jeddah and Riyadh.
The latter two routes are sizeable given the large volume of migrant workers traveling to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as well as the occasional pilgrimage traffic from the Subcontinent.
Air India has touted that its San Francisco route, which launched in late 2015, is among one of its more successful ultra-long haul operations given the high demand from the tech industry in the Bay Area and the ease of connectivity between Delhi and Bangalore. In fact, Air India’s service between Delhi and SFO originates and terminates in Bangalore using the same flight number (AI 173/174) although there is a change of aircraft equipment during the Delhi layover.
The Washington Dulles service will be geared towards diplomatic traffic traveling between the U.S. and Indian Capitals. Schedule data in Innovata shows that the shortest travel time between the two cities is roughly 980 minutes, or approximately 16.5 hours, connecting on British Airways via London Heathrow. Following this is United via Newark, and subsequently, any combination on Air France, Turkish Airlines or any of the major Gulf carriers (Emirates, Etihad and Qatar) between the city pairs.
Air India’s 777-200LRs which will be used to Washington will feature a low-density configuration of 238 seats, featuring 8 in First, 35 in Business and 195 in Economy. Relative to some of its competitors, notably the Middle Eastern carriers, Air India’s Economy class product on its 777s will be 9-abreast as opposed to 10-abreast, although its Business Class product does not offer a lie-flat seat (it is angle-flat instead) or direct-aisle access.
Air India may struggle to justify this product differential against United, which is reconfiguring its Business Class product (although eliminating First Class altogether) with its Polaris product, which will offer direct-aisle seating in the Premium Cabin. Moreover, the appeal of a nonstop flight from Dulles to India, while valuable, is slightly diminished by the close proximity of United’s Newark hub, which offers convenient schedules to Delhi and Mumbai. This was less of a threat in the case of the Delhi –San Francisco flight.
Though the presence of a Star Alliance hub at Washington Dulles will help, Air India does not have extensive agreements or codeshares with United. As present, only Singapore Airlines and Lufthansa place their codes on any Air India-operated flights to the U.S., while United does not carry Air India codes on any of its two daily services to Delhi and Mumbai.
This contrasts greatly with Air India’s relationship with United’s northerly neighbor, Air Canada, who carriers Air India’s code on numerous transatlantic and transpacific routes from Canada. Air India carries Air Canada’s code on domestic feeder flights to Delhi and Mumbai, as well as several Air India long-haul routes from Europe and Asia feeding into Delhi and Mumbai.
Presumably, Air Canada is able to sell 1-stop routings over markets such as London, Milan, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Tokyo as an alternative to its nonstop routes from Toronto to Delhi and Mumbai and Vancouver to Delhi, the latter which operates only on a seasonal basis. Given the size of the Canada – India market, Air Canada likely is aiming to generate a yield premium on its nonstop routes between the two countries (which do not share a codeshare with Air India) while routing lower-yielding, price-sensitive traffic over Europe and Asia to still collect revenue from these passengers.
Above all, Air India has managed to earn its place in Star Alliance, despite several high-profile setbacks which placed its membership status on hold for several years due to IT challenges. With a restructured commercial strategy, a growing (and more profitable) long-haul network and many of the bitter memories slowly fading into history, Air India is steadily regaining relevance in today’s modern aviation world.