Amusing: Air India wants no expansion of the bilaterals to the Middle East

India and UAE still have a bilateral system of seat allocation for air travel, which means that both sides get a per-week quota of the number of passengers they can fly to the other country. In the case of the UAE, the quota predates the union of the emirates, so there is a separate bilateral with Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al-Khaimah and Sharjah.

In the case of India and Dubai, the agreed bilateral limit is 66,000 seats (rounded up), which means that airlines from each side can operate 66,000 seats per week (with whatever combination of aircraft). This limit was last reset in 2014, and since then, it has been maintained at said levels.

Per the National Civil Aviation Policy of 2016, unless the limits were over 80% used up, no negotiations would open up on expanding the bilaterals. Since then, bilateral arrangements expansion with many countries, including Kuwait, Qatar, Singapore, Turkey, Malaysia, and Indonesia are pending.

In 2023, on the sidelines of the CAPA Indian Aviation Summit 2023, Sir Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airline, mentioned that Dubai had sent a request for 50,000 additional seats a week to and from India. However, that request was not granted, and we never heard much of it after.

As of the last available data on the Indian DGCA’s website (December 2023), Air India Group (Air India + Air India Express) carry approximately 20% of the passenger traffic in and out of India, while IndiGo carries about 18%. Amongst international carriers, Emirates carries about 8% of the traffic from/to India, and Singapore Airlines is the next biggest at about 3.5% of the traffic. Emirates share used to be even larger, at about 11-12% back in the day.

Emirates’ boss calls India’s move detrimental.

A week ago, I was in Dubai for the IATA global event of the year, their Annual General Meeting. The event saw the creme-de-la-creme of aviation turn up, including airline CEOs worldwide. Emirates was hosting the event, and I had an opportunity to talk to the Emirates President, Sir Tim Clark. Amongst the many other things discussed, one of the topics was the revision of bilateral quotas with India.

a man sitting at a table

In the words of Sir Tim Clark,

So, in India’s case, it is trying to give Air India and the Tata Group some measure of time, but you cannot do that forever. In the end, you’re compromising the strength of your economy by restricting access. Not only Emirates, but all foreign carriers. There are many people who want to engage with them.

Air India Boss wants the protectionism to continue.

Later on in the week, at the CAPA Indian Aviation Summit, which was held in Delhi, the Air India boss, Campbell Wilson, had a different take on the issue.

a man sitting in a chair

In his view, the expansion of the bilaterals will be detrimental to the case of Air India. He said,

Indian carriers recently ordered more than 1,000 aircraft. We have an appetite for more. We are committing to that on the basis that there would be an economic return to that investment, which, if you add it all, is well over USD 100 billion … If the rug is pulled from under us, and if we can’t fly those aircraft, we will not take them.

The correct answer is?

As always, the correct answer lies in between the two positions. 11.9 Million Indians visited Dubai in 2024, and the next position goes to Saudi Arabia, which only had 6.7 million guests and then the UK with 5.9 million guests. As per the Indian Embassy in the UAE, 3.5 Million Indians reside in the UAE as of 2021. The relations between the two countries are very deep, and India is a significant market for the airlines of the UAE and India. All of these tourists and residents need mobility.

While Air India’s stance is to not go for an expansion of the bilaterals, IndiGo and Akasa don’t share that opinion. Akasa cannot get rights to fly to Dubai because of the tapped-out bilateral rights from the Indian side. So, Air India’s stance is to protect its turf and not worry about the rest of the industry.

IndiGo flies from 11 cities in India to Dubai at the moment (Delhi, Chandigarh, Bengaluru, Lucknow, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Chennai, Trichy, Kochi and Thirunavanthanpuram). Air India itself flies multiple frequencies between Dubai and Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Kochi, amongst other routes, and Air India Express flies from Amritsar, Mangaluru and many other ports in India to Dubai.

It is as much of we need them as they need us situation. And the airlines need to compete on product, not on protectionism. Or are we saying that Indians who need to fly to the UAE should cut down their travel so that Air India can prove a point that it has a superior product (which it doesn’t at the moment!)? Plus, why is the business case of Air India dependent on taking traffic away from the Middle-Eastern airline patrons? Build, and they will come, eventually, unless there is no plan to match the product to that level.

And yes, there also needs to be a focus on increasing the yields. For instance, I looked up the fares on the Air India A350-900, which only flies to Dubai in terms of international routes for now. In Business Class, the fares were about INR 43,000 (about the same as they were for a last-minute fare when I was assessing my trip to the UAE for the IATA AGM).

a screenshot of a flight schedule

Emirates, on the other hand, is asking for a good 50% more despite an older product. It includes the cost of a limo transfer both ways and the confidence of a spiffy service through and through.

a screenshot of a flight schedule

So yes, in summary, Air India’s point is trying to protect what it thinks of as its home turf, but the way around this problem is not protectionism but to build a great product and service and compete on that. Because, with this stance, they are blocking their own growth in the future as well when rights run out with countries within the 5000 km radius.


While Air India bosses don’t want the expansion of air services agreements between India and Dubai, others don’t support this view. Emirates boss thinks it would be a great disservice to the economy of India if the country tries to protect its air travel. Eventually, the last time rights were negotiated was in 2014, and both sides are packed on the rights allocation at the moment and need more seats to grow.

What do you think should be India’s stance on bilateral growth in the years ahead?

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About Ajay

Ajay Awtaney is the Founder and Editor of Live From A Lounge (LFAL), a pioneering digital platform renowned for publishing news and views about aviation, hotels, passenger experience, loyalty programs, travel trends and frequent travel tips for the Global Indian. He is considered the Indian authority on business travel, luxury travel, frequent flyer miles, loyalty credit cards and travel for Indians around the globe. Ajay is a frequent contributor and commentator on the media as well, including ET Now, BBC, CNBC TV18, NDTV, Conde Nast Traveller and many other outlets.

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  1. I have no idea why so many people go on and on about direct US-India flights and how that should be the preference–this mindset completely ignores passengers outside the main metro areas, nor are all the main cities in India going to have direct connections to all the main cities in the US. Chicago-Ahmedabad direct flights? Houston to Chennai? Those flights are not going to happen and will need a one stop connection somewhere. If you have a connection in Delhi/Mumbai there is a hassle of customs and immigration, rechecking your bags at the domestic counter, etc, which is not practical for a majority of passengers, let alone older folks. For people outside the metros in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities, there is a clear preference and ease with connecting with one stop outside India. India’s own rules state as you say, that when 80% of bilaterals are maxed out, negotiations should commence for expanding the rights. Yet it’s been 10 years since Dubai rights have been expanded, and now there are no empty seats on flights from/to Dubai, and fares are 50-100% more than what they were just five years ago. Or look at Kuwait, which is only allowed 12,000 seats for Kuwaiti or Indian carriers, a number that has not increased since 2007, despite there being 4x the number of Indian residents in Kuwait since that time–a clear case for an increase based on point to point traffic alone. I thought Tata would be better, and that the government would open up once they sold Air India, but it seems they are both fine with keeping protectionism, and the losers here are travelers, who can only dream of getting deals or rates like they once did or even better, something only possible with an increase in seats and easing of pressure on the supply/demand ratio.

  2. I frequently fly India-US. I would take Air India any day instead of the UAE carriers that treat me as a cash cow. AI leg room is way better for the long haul flight and i don’t like to be treated as cattle in the UAE airports during transit.

    • @Venkat, and how is your preference on Air India related to the topic of expanded bilateral arrangements between the two countries?

      • @Ajay as you mentioned, most of the traffic to UAE is trasiting to US/EU. I’d argue that the current agreed upon seats allotment is sufficient to serve passengers whose final destination is UAE. The UAE carriers want more seats for transit passengers like me. Personally , I’d see AI capturing the US/EU traffic via direct flights using newly ordered planes like A350.

  3. The problem is there is no level playing field with Dubai, Qatar, Bahrain or UAE. They aren’t able to offer more airports like India can. The bilateral should then be based on points of entry instead of seats. If one reads the bilaterals there is port of entry and seats for many other countries and the same can be applied here to resolve the issue.

  4. The bone of contention is not point to point traffic between uae and India. It it about the transfer traffic which middle eastern carriers use as volume to sustain their hub and spoke model. There is no love lost for the Indian masses at those hubs either.
    They had connived with the previous dispensation at Central govt. to make sure they keep getting their traffic by signing favourable agreements by greasing the right palms

    Now that doesn’t mean that the Indian carriers shouldn’t be exposed to global competition. But at the point when air india is making an effort to modernize, they can’t be left alone to fend against a player that can use its financial muscle to damage the whole project.

    Instead Indian govt should have experts look into this and fix a timeline over which the current restrictions will be gradually taken out. Then all players have a roadmap they can work with.

    Rest I keep seeing reports in various forum where Emirates and co can exert their pressure like iata to turn public opinion

  5. Now there is another angle to it…how much of India to Dubai traffic is point to point, how much is then carried forward to EU and the Americas. We know the answer, bilaterals are God to cover point to point. We do not want the pass through traffic on a platter to MEA carriers?

  6. Emirates and other middle eastern airlines provide their shittiest old planes and shittiest service. They look at India as a cash cow with no interest in providing better service.
    I would rather there be protectionism to ensure that there is competition because middle eastern carriers don’t care for Indian passengers. Competition is good and for it to be maintained we need Indian airlines the room to grow and improve.

    • Air India must compete with Middle Eastern airlines instead of refusing to revise bilateral agreements. Is Air India afraid of these airlines, or does it lack faith in its own offerings? This stance stifles growth for both Air India and other airlines. Millions of people travel from India to Dubai, a number set to double in the coming years. If the bilateral agreement isn’t revised, Indians will be forced to pay higher airfares. Why does Air India want to exploit its own citizens financially?

    • @Nitin, the A380 is a shitty old plane. News to me. The A350 of Etihad is a shitty old plane, news to me again. The A350 of Qatar Airways is a shitty old plane. News to me third time over. You mean to say that Indian airlines can charge at par with an ME3 Carrier but provide half the service and product and file it under we flew you non-stop, and that is fine?

      • Exactly my point.

        Till what period will these protectionist policies be extended at the cost of more options and connectivity?
        I agree that Air India should be supported but a timeline is needed before the bilaterals are revised. It helps the economy overall which is also very important.

      • You are lucky that you are Flying from Mumbai or Delhi…Try to fly from Chennai. Also hardware alone does not make it a great product. I stopped booking through ME3 after multiple episodes of bad or no service. I go via Europe these days.

        • @SK, I’ve flown from many airports in India, not just BOM or DEL. BLR, CCU, MAA are some of them. Just in case you want to come back on me flying exclusively from DEL or BOM.

          • If you have flown from MAA to Middle East with ME3 and experienced good service, that is definitely an improvement.

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