In November 2008, India’s technology capital was to be connected with Silicon Valley with a non-stop flight service by the erstwhile Kingfisher Airlines. However, that Bengaluru to San Francisco flight, which was to be serviced by the four-engined Airbus 340 aircraft, never saw the light of day; high oil prices, followed by a global economic crisis stalled its take-off back then.
Thirteen years later (the irony isn’t lost with the number), another global crisis—more deadly in nature— has ensured that the two technology capitals of the world are connected with a non-stop flight service. On January 11, in the wee-hours of the morning, Air India flight AI176 from San Francisco landed at Kempegowda International Airport, Bengaluru (KIAB). The twin-engined Boeing 777-200 LR aircraft had flown approximately 14,000 kilometres, charting a route over the North Pole, with a flight time of about 16 hours. The route is said to be amongst the top 10 longest routes in the world, in terms of distance flown. Add to it: the historic maiden flight was operated by an all-women cockpit crew.
“It’s a direct result of the air bubble arrangement (between India and the U.S.). You don’t have a choice, you have to fly non-stop,” says Vinamra Longani, head of operations for Sarin & Co., an Indian law firm specialising in aircraft leasing and finance.
In the post-Covid-19 world, international air travel to and from India is regulated through air bubble agreements between India and various countries, including the U.S. Through these agreements, non-stop flight services between the countries are permitted; but passengers aren’t allowed to transit through any other country.
“If anything, it (air bubble) has only eliminated the competition,” says Devesh Agarwal, editor, bangaloreaviation.com, an aviation news portal. “The airlines who are suffering are the ones who rely on transit traffic [to the U.S.], the European and West Asian carriers, and Singapore Airlines.” So much so, Dubai’s Emirates is said to scale down its flights to San Francisco and Seattle from seven to four weekly flights, which Longani believes is a direct fallout of no transit passenger traffic from India.
According to Hardeep Singh Puri, Minister of State for Civil Aviation, the India-U.S. air travel market is worth $7 billion, but the share of Indian carriers is only 17%. “This is not to say that U.S. carriers are getting the balance,” Puri was quoted in an online article published by The Hindu. The minister was alluding to the fact that pre-Covid-19 much of this India-U.S. passenger traffic was dominated by airlines from West Asia and Europe.
Approximately 1.3 million people travel between the U.S. and India (one way) every year. Until December 2019, Air India and United Airlines were the two airlines offering non-stops flights between India and U.S. Then Delta Air Lines launched its non-stop service between New York and Mumbai, which it suspended in March 2020.
Estimates shared by sources at KIAB point to the fact that the Bengaluru-San Francisco route is a 200 plus PDEW (passenger daily each way) sector. And testament to the demand, Air India’s inaugural flight was said to be booked to capacity. “This [flight service] fulfils a long pending demand of Bangaloreans,” said a jubilant Hari Marar, managing director and chief executive officer, Bangalore International Airport Limited, which owns and operates KIAB.
Air India, which is being prepared for a sale, will operate a twice-weekly service between Bengaluru and San Francisco, and is also launching a non-stop Hyderabad to Chicago flight soon. Its competitor United Airlines is also launching a non-stop San Francisco to Bengaluru flight in May. Then, American Airlines rescheduled its non-stop Seattle to Bengaluru service to later this year; it was supposed to start in October last year. Do keep in mind, Seattle is the headquarters for technology giants Amazon and Microsoft, both of whom have been doubling down on their India operations.
At present, non-stop flights between India and the U.S. are operated on nine routes, with Air India operating on six routes and United Airlines on three.
While the air bubble agreement may have given a fillip to ultra-long haul (ULH) travel between India and the U.S., subdued oil prices, too, are a factor in play. The longer an aircraft flies, the more fuel it needs to carry. Which is why ULH flights make economic sense only when the latest generation of aircraft, such as the Boeing 787s and Airbus 350s, are deployed. “Both (United Airlines and American Airlines) are going to be using the B787-9 aircraft, which are much more fuel efficient and have a much better seat-configuration layout (when compared to Air India’s B777-200 LR aircraft),” says Agarwal. They’re cheaper to operate on a per seat and per trip basis.
To be sure, Air India does operate the B787-8 series of aircraft, but they aren’t suited for ULH flights. It’s B777-200 LR aircraft are about 11 to 14 years old and have an older cabin configuration of a first, business and an economy class, which carries under 200 passengers.
Hence, there is skepticism over the flag carrier’s ability to operate these ULH routes to the U.S. once the air bubble agreement expires. More so, when its American counterpart launches its flight to Bengaluru. “The Air India flight stands no chance compared to the United [Airlines] service,” says Longani unequivocally. “It’s good that Air India started (the Bengaluru to San Francisco service), but I’m not sure how long it will continue,” adds Agarwal.
At this moment, as there is no clarity on when international travel restrictions would be eased, travel between India and the U.S. is restricted to ULH flights. But when they do, would passengers want to get on to two flights to reach their final destination and increase their risk of getting infected or prefer to fly non-stop? Common wisdom would think the latter, but that’s still conjecture at this point in time. A lot would depend on how soon India and the world can get vaccinated.