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Air Canada ups India game; Air India needs planes to match it

Canada has a huge Indian diaspora and many fly here to escape that country’s harsh winter. While airlines based in North America and Europe are barred from flying over Russia, Air India faces no such restrictions and this has given it a tremendous edge. But it needs planes to take advantage of the situation.

June 21, 2022 / 01:01 PM IST
File image of an Air India aircraft on the runway

File image of an Air India aircraft on the runway


After visiting the airline’s Delhi headquarters on June 20, MD and CEO-designate Campbell Wilson wrote a note to the Air India family, expressing optimism and saying “AI’s best years are yet to come”.

Late evening that same day, Air Canada announced some changes and the resumption of its seasonal flights to Mumbai. India’s second-busiest airport and the financial capital of the country. The daily flights to Mumbai, to be operated on Boeing 787 Dreamliner aircraft, will operate via London Heathrow with the airline having full rights to sell the London–Mumbai–London segment as well.

The flight will depart Toronto at 2030 hours and land in London at 0830 hours the next day. After a brief halt, it will depart for Mumbai at 1110 hours and land at 0140 hours in Mumbai (the next day).

The return leg will start at 0450 hours from Mumbai, reaching London at 0920 hours. The last leg will depart London at midday and land in Toronto at 1455 hours. This will open up additional options on the London Heathrow–Mumbai sector, which currently sees three carriers (British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Air India) compete.

Air Canada has operated flights to India via London Heathrow in the past, with the ones to Delhi ceasing in 1999.

Close

India offering

Air Canada returned to India in 2017 with flights to Delhi from Toronto. This was followed by flights to Mumbai, and enhancing the Delhi offering with flights from Vancouver as well as Montreal.

The airline will offer the following flights this winter:

  • Toronto–Mumbai: Seasonal daily flights via London Heathrow

  • Toronto–Delhi: Year-round flights

  • Vancouver–Delhi: Thrice weekly flights starting October 1. Outbound flight has a technical stop at Dublin

  • Montreal–Delhi: Thrice weekly year-round flights

Past challenges

Air Canada’s India outing has been marred by challenges. In 2019, the airspace closure by Pakistan for flights to and from India led to it adding a technical stop at times and longer routing at all times for the flights. The airline had to rejig its network and drop frequencies. This was followed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just when things were about to get normal in the world of travel, the war in Ukraine has meant that Russian airspace is out of bounds for Air Canada flights, as a reciprocal measure.

Why Air India needs more planes

Air India is one of the few airlines that continues to fly over Russia. While airlines based in North America and Europe are barred from flying over Russia, Air India faces no such restrictions and this has given it a tremendous advantage. It does not need a technical stop, unlike its peers in the West and thus is competitive in terms of total time, more so in the current, high-cost flying environment.

So, why isn’t Air India adding more flights? Because it doesn’t have enough planes. Air Canada’s India expansion has shown once more why Air India needs more aircraft and why it needs them urgently.

Over the years, Air India has established itself as a dominant player in the India–United States market. A few years ago, that domination started getting challenged when United Airlines mounted flights on routes where Air India had a monopoly and American Airlines made a comeback. Yet, Air India has managed a tight operation very well and maintained its lead.

However, the same is not true for Canada. While Air India operates to Toronto and Vancouver from Delhi, its capacity is much lower than that of Air Canada. The India–Canada market may be smaller than the India–US market, but Canada has bilateral restrictions for carriers, including those from West Asia, as compared to the open skies of the US. And therein lies the opportunity for Air India.

A look at the winter schedule shows Air India operates daily services to Toronto from Delhi and thrice-weekly services to Vancouver. The flights to Vancouver are currently operated by the B787, in the absence of B777s. Air India is facing issues with its wide-body fleet and that has led to the airline scaling down its operations.

Tail Note

The Airbus A350, widely rumoured to be the aircraft of choice for the new Air India, is capable of flying non-stop from India to Canada. The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner also has this capability, but Air India has none of those planes. The airline does operate the 787-8 on North American routes. This implies there will be restrictions on the number of tickets sold but is the only solution for lack of aircraft along with the cost of fuel right now.

Canada has a large population of people of Indian origin. A lot of them travel to India for the winters to avoid the harsh winters of Canada and stay in India where the winter climate is better relative to the summer.

So, can Air India rejig its network by winter to accommodate additional flights to Canada? Will the next few months spring a surprise that the airline can get additional 787s to take on Air Canada? The answer may lie with just one person right now: Campbell Wilson!
Ameya Joshi runs the aviation analysis website Network Thoughts.
first published: Jun 21, 2022 01:01 pm
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