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A (non-stop) passage to India: How United Airlines is looking to grab a larger slice of the India market

Amid the raging pandemic in the US and India, United Airlines has announced the launch of non-stop Chicago-Delhi and San Francisco-Bengaluru flights. We break down what this means for flag carrier Air India and for Delta and American Airlines, its rivals back home

September 10, 2020 / 01:57 PM IST

In a surprise announcement, United Airlines, one of the top three US carriers, said it would operate non-stop flights from Chicago to Delhi and from San Francisco to Bengaluru. The Chicago-Delhi route is scheduled to commence this December, while flights to Bengaluru are scheduled to begin in Spring 2021.

Both the flights will be operated daily and the airline will deploy the B787-9 Dreamliner on these routes.

With this announcement, United is going a step ahead of American Airlines and Delta and at the same time countering Air India. Both Delta and American have tried routes to India in the past and failed, while United has continued its presence and is now building up to take a major leap in the market.

The planned launch also goes to show the importance of non-stop flights in the near term and how airlines perceive this market. Indeed, United Airlines is now likely to claim the title of making the first-ever non-stop flight to the United States from Bengaluru.

Countering Air India

Close

By seats deployed between the two countries, Air India is the capacity leader, with flights to New York, Newark, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco.

Until a few years ago, Air India operated to Newark from Mumbai and to New York and Chicago from New Delhi. Then it decided to up its game, launching flights to San Francisco on the west coast and Washington, and quickly increasing the frequency to San Francisco.

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While Air India focusses on connections on the India side, United offered good connectivity across the United states, but only operated daily flights to Mumbai and New Delhi. It then launched the New Delhi-San Francisco route to take Air India head on.

Meanwhile, West Asian carriers Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways also carried a significant chunk of India-US traffic.

Ironically, both Air India and United had dated products until the latter upgraded its aircraft type to New Delhi and also launched flights from San Francisco on the B787-9 Dreamliner, the newest aircraft in its fleet.

While United is often criticised for its service, the airline has a far better product than Air India, which has not seen any refurbishment on either its B777 or B787 planes. Another key differentiator is the Wi-Fi on offer in United Airlines flights.

With Air India up for privatisation and already neck deep in losses, the government is unlikely to fund a product revamp even though the flag carrier is losing its competitive edge over rivals.

Vistara recently started a thrice-a-week service to London. While the airline has two B787-9 aircraft in its fleet, it does not have a crew rest area in its Dreamliner. This prohibits it from operating ultra-long-haul non-stop flights between India and the United states and puts it out of contention.

Comparing the two routes

United is going head on with Air India on the Chicago-Delhi route. Air India offers a Hyderabad-New Delhi-Chicago and back service, with passengers being allowed to complete formalities in Hyderabad. United has a code share with Vistara, which will help it cater to Hyderabad and other markets in India.

Between San Francisco and Bengaluru, Air India has an international connector, which means that while there is a change in aircraft, the flight number is the same and passengers can complete travel formalities in Bengaluru. The aircraft arrives at the International terminal in New Delhi.

There was a hue and cry over the shortest time to San Francisco from Bengaluru when Air India launched the route. Undoubtedly that debate will be resolved when United operates its first flight.

Taking on its American rivals

Even before United’s New Delhi-San Francisco flight could make inroads into the market, rival Delta had announced a flight to Mumbai from New York, while American Airlines announced a connection to Bengaluru from Seattle early this year.

United’s new connections between the US and India need to be seen in this context.

Delta, which launched its non-stop service to Mumbai last December, had to quickly pull back the service as the pandemic started raging. The airline had planned to resume the service in December 2020, but that now stands cancelled. It has also cancelled this service in the Summer 2021 schedule, which lasts until October 2021.

American Airlines meanwhile, had to scrub the launch of its service to Bengaluru from Seattle and push it to 2021. Unlike Delta, the airline was lucky to have not invested in the route or commenced operations before the pandemic hit.

 Tail Note

Given that Bengaluru is the IT capital of India, it is surprising that the city had to wait this long to connect directly to California and its Silicon Valley.

Bengaluru is at a height of 3,000 feet above mean sea level. and this could pose challenges with a full load on the way out. However, Air India had similar challenges while deploying the B787-8 to Washington and has been happy to keep costs down instead of operating the B777s, though this means servicing fewer passengers. The same logic could well work for United.

The Covid-19 pandemic has held back many route launches and taken a heavy toll on traffic and route development across the world. While United has made an announcement, the raging pandemic could still throw its plans out of gear.

Likewise, if the pandemic is in control and air traffic picks up, Delta and American could look at advancing their revised launch dates and enter the market earlier.

For now, everything depends on the pandemic and when it is likely to end.
Ameya Joshi runs the aviation blog Network Thoughts.
Ameya Joshi

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