Come Sunday, and Air India will launch services between Mumbai and Pune. The airline will operate six times a week and deploy an Airbus A319 — the smallest aircraft in its fleet — on this sector. With a dedicated six-lane expressway between the two cities and a distance of mere 150 kms, a flight certainly raises eyebrows, especially when there is ample train connectivity as well.
At 124 kms, the Mumbai–Pune route will also be the shortest narrowbody route in India. The shortest route in winter on narrowbody was the Kozhikode–Kannur sector at 95 kms, which Air India operated, but the airline has since pulled that route.
Interestingly, the airline’s schedule shows one hour to fly between Mumbai and Pune, which could be a combination of slot issues at both airports since they are congested.
Mumbai is the second largest airport in the country, both for domestic and international flights, while Pune is the ninth largest domestic market and tenth overall. The sheer size of the markets would ideally ensure that there are enough passengers for the flight.
This route, when operational, will likely mark a rare distinction — all the top 10 cities in India by domestic air traffic will be connected to each other by direct flights. The last time Mumbai–Pune flights were operational, there were a few other cities within the top 10 that weren’t connected to each other.
Who's flying where ?
A look at the top 10 cities shows that there are 45 city pairs among them. Fifteen of these are monopoly routes, and 13 of those monopolies are with IndiGo. Mumbai–Pune will become a monopoly for Air India, while Pune–Goa (Dabolim) is a monopoly for SpiceJet.
Six routes from Kochi, those to Pune, Goa (Dabolim), Ahmedabad, Chennai, Kolkata and Hyderabad are monopoly routes with IndiGo. The next is Pune which has five such routes, followed by Kolkata with four and Hyderabad and Chennai with three each. There are seven routes that are a duopoly.
A look at the schedule shows that Akasa Air is shrinking and giving away some of its space in the southern corridor by completely pulling out of the Chennai–Kochi market, making it a monopoly for IndiGo. SpiceJet, too, has vacated some of its routes as it shrinks considerably this summer.
Delhi–Mumbai–Delhi and Delhi–Bengaluru–Delhi remains the only route where all the major airlines operate, though this may change as routes shift among Tata group airlines, especially Air India and AirAsia India.
Why the flight?
A look at Mumbai–Pune–Mumbai flights shows that it does not offer a full day of work in either city. The flight departs Mumbai at 945 am and lands in Pune at 1045 am. The return flight takes off at 1120 am and lands in Mumbai at 1220 pm.
In fact, the last flight to operate between Mumbai and Pune departed Mumbai at similar times, but there was also a return flight from Pune, which departed at 1740 hours for Mumbai. This Air India flight, then, is more about connectivity to Air India’s international departures from Mumbai. The Pune–Mumbai flight connects well to its San Francisco flight, but misses out on the Newark and New York connection.
This could well be a sign of times to come, where the airline rejigs its offering to North America from Mumbai or builds an afternoon bank of flights to Europe, much like in its operations from Delhi — helping this flight connect well to those.
In an ideal scenario, Air India could look at a second daily flight between the two cities to offer better two-way connectivity, subject to availability of aircraft, slots and market traction.
There has been an eternal debate about how a lot of traffic at Delhi and Mumbai comes from surrounding areas — from Amritsar and parts of Punjab to Delhi, and Surat and Pune to Mumbai. A flight, however, does not always attract travellers due to timings and the Indian tradition of many people coming in to see you off.
Jet Airways did exceptionally well on this route with its pricing strategies such that it could feed its wider network from Mumbai. How will Air India do it? Interestingly, this will be the only monopoly route from Pune for the Tata group’s airlines.