Vistara to fly neck and neck with Air India with aggressive long-haul expansion

Vistara's flight to Tokyo on July 7 made it the carrier's third long-haul route, and it also has plans to fly non-stop to the US

Vistara to fly neck and neck with Air India with aggressive long-haul expansion
The showpiece Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that has allowed Vistara to have a bigger global footprint. Image courtesy: Facebook/Tripoto

Tata- and Singapore Airlines-owned Vistara, which is among the two full-service carriers in India at present, has launched direct flights to Japan. 

The inaugural flight departed Delhi's Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport at 3 am (IST) on July 7 and reached Tokyo's Haneda airport at 2.30 am (local time), Vistara said in a press statement. The flight is being operated by the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner and under India's air bubble agreement with Japan. It is the third long-haul route that Vistara is flying on. 

The Delhi-Tokyo flights are scheduled to operate once a week at present, possibly due to Covid-19 restrictions. Delhi-Tokyo has quickly developed into a busy international route, and currently, with the addition of Vistara, four carriers serve the route; the other three being ANA, Japan Airlines (JAL), and Air India (Narita), Simpleflying reported.

"We are delighted to take India’s finest airline to Japan and provide an unmatched flying experience to our customers that exemplifies modern Indian hospitality with the highest global standards in safety, hygiene and operations. We look forward to further strengthening our presence on this new route in the coming months," said Vistara Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Leslie Thng.

Long-haul dreams harboured for long

Vistara's flight to Japan, however, should not come as a surprise. The airline has been eyeing long-haul routes for a long time, seeking to go toe-to-toe with national carrier Air India, and filling up the space vacated by Jet Airways, which used to fly as far as Toronto (Canada), Brussels (Belgium) and Paris (France). Jet Airways also flew to the US through Amsterdam (Netherlands) before it ceased operations in April 2019.   

Non-stop flights to London

Vistara's first international flight landed in Singapore in 2019. In August 2020, the airline announced the launch of a non-stop flight to London from Delhi, The Hindu reported. The initial plan was to fly thrice a week between the two cities, under the India-UK air bubble agreement, using the B787-9 Dreamliner. Vistara was also seeking regulatory approvals to launch similar flights to Paris and Frankfurt (Germany).

The Vistara B787-9 Dreamliner taking off. Image courtesy: Youtube/Vistara

Air bubble flights had brought back commercial international passenger air travel to and from India in a limited manner at a time when regular travel was suspended in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. Vistara announced the launch of direct flights to the UK following the Union Home Ministry allowing people with Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status and foreign citizens to travel to India for business, medical and employment purposes. 

"As the world starts opening up in a phased manner following an extended global lockdown, these special flights give us the privilege of facilitating travel between the two countries," said Thng.  

Expanding its global reach, Vistara announced on November 27 that it will operate special, non-stop flights between Mumbai and London Heathrow Airport from January 16, 2021.

Also read: Why Vistara launching flights to US now makes perfect business sense

Thng said on the occasion, "We are delighted at the very positive response to our service between Delhi and London Heathrow which has encouraged us to further strengthen the network by adding connectivity from Mumbai as we see considerable demand between the two countries, and remain optimistic about the future. Vistara is well-positioned with its brand new fleet, world-class cabin products, award-winning service, and more importantly, the trust of our customers."

The airline was to operate these special flights thrice a week -– on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays -- complementing its service between Delhi and London Heathrow Airport. However, the launch of the Mumbai-London route had to be postponed in view of the Covid restrictions in the UK and a reduction in the number of flights. The service eventually started on January 26 this year, livefromalounge.com reported.

The Dreamliner has helped Vistara in foraying into lucrative long-haul markets. (Cover image courtesy Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Anna Zvereva)

India had followed many other countries in suspending UK flights in December last year after a highly infectious mutant variant of the coronavirus was detected in the UK. Operations were resumed in the first week of January, but at a significantly reduced capacity. 

Foray into Germany

Another long-haul destination was added to Vistara's list when it launched non-stop flights between Delhi and Frankfurt in February this year, The Times of India reported. The plan was to fly between the two cities twice a week. Thng pointed out that the Frankfurt flights would strengthen Vistara's presence in Europe, and especially in one of the world's busiest aviation hubs, which would allow the airline to grow in the global market. 

Ready to fly to the US

Vistara then scored big when it received a temporary foreign air carrier permit from the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to fly to the US, according to the airline's statement in June this year. This brought Vistara into direct competition with Air India, which is the only airline operating flights between the US and India at present. As and when Vistara commences the US flights, flyers would have a brand new option, apart from Air India, which could soon turn out to be Vistara's stablemate if the Tata group is able to regain ownership of the national carrier. 

Vistara entering the US market could be a money-spinner for the airline, providing it with a rich source of revenue to possibly tide over its Covid woes. The pandemic and the threat of infection, especially with several mutant strains of the coronavirus floating around, have made flyers increasingly wary of travelling through the hubs in Europe, Middle East and South East Asia. The emphasis in the Covid era is more and more on non-stop flights even on long-haul routes. 

In this regard, Ashwini Phadnis pointed out in an article in Plane Vanilla that when Air India had launched the Delhi-San Francisco non-stop flight in 2015, it was able to command a premium fare owing to the fact that it was the only carrier from both India and the US at that time to fly non-stop on that sector. The other option for passengers was to travel through Europe, Middle East and South East Asia. However, non-stop flights have always been preferred, even when the pandemic had not made them a necessity, considering the significantly lesser hassles involved in a non-stop flight. 

Also read: Vistara announces exciting news for Mumbai-London passengers

Vistara flying non-stop to the US would also be a boon to flyers in the sense that prices would come down under competition between two premier carriers. 

Phadnis also noted that the India-US air traffic market was estimated at around $7 billion annually before the pandemic struck, and a large number of Indians flying abroad are from the Visiting Friends and Relatives (VFR) segment. There is a large Indian population in the US, the UK, Middle East, Canada, Africa and Australia, and Vistara stands poised to cash in on the demand from the VFR segment, he added. Thng had mentioned that Vistara planned to connect India and Australia as well in the near future. 

A Simpleflying article mentioned, in this regard, that Vistara has the potential to shake up the US-India market. The market is currently dominated by the duopoly of Air India and United Airlines. However, American Airlines had announced its plans to start non-stop flights between Delhi and New York (JFK) from October 31 this year and also commence the Bengaluru and Seattle flights that were supposed to start last winter itself. While Bengaluru has seen increased connectivity to the US West Coast, other sectors are open to competition, the Simpleflying article said, while adding that Vistara has the chance to add capacity to cities like San Francisco and New York, which are currently served only by Air India and United Airlines. 

Delta Airlines of the US used to operate on the Mumbai-New York (JFK) route until recently after it had resumed flights on the sector after a decade in 2019. Vistara is well placed to fill the gap created by Delta's exit, Simpleflying pointed out. 

Vistara plans to start direct India-US flights during October-December 2021, Live Mint quoted Vistara Chief Commercial Officer Vinod Kannan as saying. 

In July last year, Vistara's Indian peer SpiceJet was designated as a scheduled Indian carrier to operate flights to the US. It made SpiceJet the only Indian carrier apart from Air India that could fly to the US under the air bubble programme. Indeed, SpiceJet is another Indian carrier that is gunning for the long-haul market and has used the wet-leased Airbus A330Neo for the purpose. It has already operated flights from Amsterdam to Bengaluru and Hyderabad, and Delhi to Toronto. If SpiceJet enters the India-US market and the reincarnated Jet Airways decides to go big on long-haul operations, Air India's monopoly on long-distance routes could well be a thing of the past. 

Vistara's long-haul operations are being anchored by the B787-9 Dreamliner, which has a range of 7,530 nautical miles (13,950 km) -- the exact range required to fly to the US. The Dreamliner was unveiled by the Indian carrier in March last year, and it currently flies two of these planes. In mid-2018, Vistara had placed a firm order of six B787-9 Dreamliners, out of which the first three were planned to have a range of flying non-stop to Europe, Australia and the Far East, The Times of India reported. The remaining three Dreamliners are expected to come with the Overhead Flight Crew Rest (OFCR) option, providing bunks for the crew members. This would be necessary to allow Vistara to mount direct flights to North American destinations like New York, Washington and Toronto, with two sets of the crew operating the aircraft by turn. 

Vistara had placed orders for six Dreamliners in 2018. Image courtesy: Twitter/@airvistara

Vistara is also believed to have sought the Directorate General of Civil Aviation's (DGCA) approval for Extended Diversion Time Operations (EDTO) of 180 minutes for its Dreamliners. This would ensure that the airline can easily fly non-stop to both the west and east coasts of North America, The Times of India report said.

Also read: Why Delta wants to stop SpiceJet from entering US               

According to the International Civil Aviation Organisation's (ICAO) definition, EDTO refers to "any operation by an aeroplane with two or more turbine engines where the diversion time to an en-route alternate aerodrome is greater than the threshold time established by the State of the operator (in this case, India)".

Entry into Japan carefully planned

Vistara's foray into the Japanese market has been in the works for some time now. The Delhi-Tokyo route was originally slated to be launched on June 16 but had to be postponed because of operational reasons.  

Vistara and JAL recently expanded their codeshare partnership and from March 15, the two carriers had planned to offer codeshare services on JAL's international routes to India, and on connecting flights to major cities in their respective nations, a Business Traveller report said. Under this agreement, JAL had promised to add 13 new destinations, like Goa and Amritsar, to its international network in India, while Vistara had pledged to add five Japanese cities -- Sapporo, Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, and Fukuoka -- to its virtual network.  

The Air India website defines codeshare flights as those which are marketed by one carrier and operated by another. This a result of agreements between airlines to sell seats on each other's flights. This provides passengers with a wider choice of destinations. The ticket would be booked on the flight number of the airline that the passenger had booked the travel with, but the flight would be operated by another carrier.

Vistara, like IndiGo, has been keen to add more international routes to its list to take advantage of a likely revival in demand for air travel as the Covid surge subsides in India, an Economic Times report pointed out.