IndiGo may add a business class cabin for long flights?

IndiGo initially placed an order for 25 A321neo which it later upgauged to 150 A321neo. After a delay in deliveries, post receiving the first A321neo, VT-IUA in December 2018, more A321neos have started joining the fleet in quick succession.

IndiGo for quite some time now has envisaged to expand to the UK and even to other cities in Europe like Paris, Frankfurt, Brussels and so-on. It was thought that IndiGo would add flights to London when it took delivery of the A321neo.

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VT-IUA, IndiGo’s first A321neo

IndiGo had secured slots at London Gatwick for the Winter 2019 season but didn’t add any flights. Earlier it was reported that IndiGo may add flights with a stop at Istanbul but later on it was confirmed that the routing would have been via Tbilisi.

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W18 slots at London Gatwick

Nevertheless, IndiGo entered into a codeshare agreement with Turkish Airlines and even launched flights to Istanbul with an A321neo. Quickly, IndiGo announced the launch of a second daily flight to Istanbul but with an A320. Just before the first flight to Istanbul, the Pakistan airspace closed. IndiGo added a technical stop at Doha for the first frequency.

Due to the prolonged closure of the Pakistan airspace, Jet Airways suspending operations and SpiceJet’s  ability to compensate for the grounding of the 737MAX using ex-Jet Airways 737s, IndiGo made some changes to their Istanbul route.

They added a technical stop on both legs and downgraded the flight to an A320neo while deploying the A321neo on domestic routes. IndiGo also postponed the launch of the second daily flight to August 1, 2019.

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Turkish Airlines-IndiGo

In January 2019, I wrote first, that IndiGo had secured slots for a daily Delhi – London Gatwick flight via Baku for Summer 2019 season.

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Slot filing for Delhi to London Gatwick via Baku

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Slot filing for London Gatwick to Delhi via Baku

But later on, when the slot distribution was put out an interesting revelation came. IndiGo didn’t secure any slots at London Gatwick. Instead IndiGo had secured slots for flights from London Stansted to Delhi and Bengaluru and even Birmingham to Amritsar. What was interesting was that this time it indicated a non-stop flight or a flight with a technical stop and not fifth freedom route like in earlier cases.

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S19 slots at London Stansted airport

It is costlier to operate to London Heathrow but cheaper to operate to London Gatwick and even cheaper to London Stansted. Slot availability increases in the same order but the route premium also decreases in the same order.

Looks like IndiGo seems to have put their Europe expansion on the back burner again for now. One of the main reasons is the aircraft and IndiGo’s product offering. From time to time, I have mentioned that IndiGo’s product (both hard and soft product) is only good for flights under four to five hours.

For mid-haul flights of 6 hours and more, three things are expected: seats with padding, charging ports and hot meals (free or buy on board). IndiGo had a chance to improve their passenger experience by adding better seats, charging ports, WiFi, ovens in the galley and so on on their A321neo.

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Onboard VT-IUA, IndiGo’s A321neo

But keeping in line with their product offering, they made no changes except increase the seat pitch by a bit. IndiGo went ahead and installed the same seats on their A321neo as well, and opted against installing ovens. This meant, no hot meals and the same packaged cold sandwiches and ready to eat meals as they offer on A320/neo flights. Equal to dissatisfied travellers.

Neither did they install charging ports or factory fitted streamable IFE or WiFi, to keeps costs low. Nor did they differentiate the IndiGo XL seats.

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No ovens!! VT-IUA Front Galley

SpiceJet, when they took delivery of the Boeing 737MAX, made sure that they improve passenger experience considering that the 737MAX would mostly fly on international routes like Delhi – Hong Kong (4 1/2 hours), Hyderabad – Jeddah (6 hours) and so-on. To save on capital cost, they went ahead to install a factory fitted WiFi system and planned to add USB charging ports later on.

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Onboard the new SpiceJet 737MAX

The Istanbul flight which otherwise is blocked at around 6 1/2 hours but the technical stop makes its a 10-hour ordeal was IndiGo’s real test. All the problems we highlighted earlier which would be a dampner in passenger experience came true. This trip report of IndiGo’s inaugural flight to Istanbul on an A321neo will give you an idea how.

  • 3 washrooms for 222 passengers and crew lead to queues
  • slimline seats for 7 hours
  • no hot meals
  • IFE or charging ports could have helped to kill time

In an interview with Bloomberg, IndiGo’s CEO, Ronojoy Dutta emphasised the need for a product overhaul if IndiGo were to successfully expand to Europe.

Once you get to six, seven, eight hours, the body gets tired, people need to use the washrooms more, people need to eat more frequently, all of those things change. We have to redesign our product. Is it more pitch, is it more food, is it more hot towels, is it a business class? The airline business is strongly segmented by the length of flying. People’s expectations change a lot because the body demands change a lot.

It’s not uncommon for a no-frills carrier to differentiate product offering. It depends on which routes will the aircraft operate and what passengers are you targetting. We have seen JetBlue offer a lie-flat business class on their premium heavy A321 Mint aircraft. These aircraft usually fly between east and west coast in the USA. Even JetBlue is planning an expansion to London with their yet to be delivered A321LR featuring a new Mint Class.

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JetBlue Mint class onboard A321

Arkia which was the first to take delivery of A321LR went with a single class configuration of 220 Economy seats. But they made up by adding better seats, streamable IFE, WiFi, USB charging ports, PED holders, mood lighting and so-on. Arkia will soon launch flights to Kochi and Goa from Tel Aviv with the A321LR.

But then there are airlines like WOW air (ceased operation) and Norwegian Air (struggling financially) which flew cramped narrowbodies like A321s and 737MAX on mid-haul routes.

The 5-8 hour flight length is a sort of grey area. It can be operated both by narrowbodies as well as widebodies. Both have their merits and demerits. For an airlines perspective, why add a new aircraft type for a route which can be operated by an existing fleet type?

Ideally, from a passenger perspective, it is better for widebodies to operate sectors of more than 5 hours. But adding a widebody fleet especially by a no-frills carrier can go either way. We have seen that in the case of WOW air, Norwegian Air which is struggling and so-on, where they aggressively expanded only to accumulate massive losses.

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AirAsia X A330-300

But it is not always the case. Scoot is operating successfully so is Jetstar. AirAsia X posted a profit for the quarter ending March 31, 2019. WestJet is operating profitably year on year though profits dipped last year. WestJet recently started taking delivery of Boeing 787-9 and even added a business class cabin which was a first for them.

There is definitely a case for widebodies like the A330neo for a no-frills carrier in India if they configure it in the right way and use them for the right routes. You cannot have a premium heavy cabin cause you won’t fill up enough seats. On the other end, you cannot have a premium light cabin as yields will be lower plus many economy class seats may go empty. This holds true for narrowbodies as well on longer routes.

Also if IndiGo is planning to add a premium cabin, up to what extent will it go? Is adding a proper business class cabin with lie-flat seats like JetBlue Mint a good option or adding recliner seats like Scoot, AirAsia X, Norwegian air and so-on a better option? What kind of service will it offer?

Then there is the fuel which forms the majority of the cost of an airline. Widebodies on shorter routes and narrowbodies on longer routes burn a lot of fuel so it is important to get the mix (route length, cabin configuration and so-on) right.

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A330neo on display at Aero India Source: Airbus

Bloomberg even reported that IndiGo is looking at placing a huge order probably with Airbus. It was also reported that IndiGo is also looking at the yet to be launched A321XLR which would have a better range than the 4,100nm on a 206 seat A321LR. The A321LR might not have sufficient range for a non-stop 4,154nm flight to London Stanstead from Delhi. Plus the A321XLR being of the same family type would translate to fleet commonality.

We do know that IndiGo is taking their own time to ponder over expansion to Europe. It is clearly evident that they do not want to hurry even though there is a huge void created in India – London market due to suspension of Jet Airways flights. IndiGo knows their current product won’t ideal for both a 9-hour non-stop journey or more than 10 hours in case it is one-stop.

They also know flying one stop isn’t as lucrative due to increased competition even if fares are low. IndiGo also knows that several airlines have failed and some dug their own grave when they expanded aggressively especially in the low-cost long haul sector. It is good to see IndiGo trying to get things right and giving it time and thought before undergoing such an expansion.

What are your thoughts on IndiGo changing their product offering for longer flights?



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