About a year ago, when Vistara launched its international flights, they rushed in to fill the gap that Jet Airways’ left behind. So much so that they launched their first services between Delhi/Mumbai – Singapore with ex-Jet Airways 737 airframes instead of waiting for their A320neos/A321neos to arrive. The A321neo was the designated aircraft for the routes, with flatbeds fitted in business class for an excellent overnight flight over to Singapore.
Now, Vistara is operating the A321neo for the moment between Delhi – Dubai, as Singapore is largely unserved and locked down. The Boeing 787-9s that Vistara ordered were initially meant for travel to Europe and Japan (8-9 hour trips non-stop) and did not have any crew rest bunks accordingly. Now, for the time being, Vistara has slots to the UK under the air bubble agreement and is flying Delhi – London flights a few times a week. The other 787-9 does domestic missions as Vistara awaits the next set of slots to fly this aircraft outside the country and conducts line checks of its pilots on the 787-9 aircraft. I am not sure if the 787-9 will next head to Japan (the crew is being prepared for Japan), or will it head to Germany or France next (I’ve also heard the A321neos might operate the mission to Paris/Frankfurt).
Challenges of flying between India and the USA
The USA is the holy grail of Indian carriers, much like the UK is. It is easier to get slots to the USA given the open-skies agreement between the two countries, as compared to UK where LHR has a slot constraint, and seats between India (DEL/BOM) and LHR are capped due to the Air Services Agreement between the two countries. Air India has been flying to the USA non-stop from India for a long while now and uses their 77W/77L aircraft in the market (some with a payload restriction). Jet Airways also had the 77W but used to prefer flying via Europe, allowing for traffic uplift/drop in their scissor hub in Europe apart from flying to the USA from there. While Jet Airways’ product was much loved, they wrapped up their San Francisco flight via China pretty quickly. When the finances started to deteriorate, JFK was the first station to go, followed by EWR (I could never understand Jet’s wish to operate to both the New York Airports). Also, Jet Airways 777s had those massive suites which were flying empty but were taking so much valuable space and weight on the aircraft that a non-stop was not doable.
The point of all this background is that the USA is a pretty tough market to crack when you don’t have the right equipment. The arrival of the 787 was a boon in this context, given it is a lighter aircraft compared to the 777s and also lesser seats by 20-30% so the cost per seat operation would become much lesser. Air India has been flying Delhi to Washington DC with the 787-8 no less, which I guess comes with some payload restriction, but still cheaper than fly a 77W to that market.
Vistara to the USA
Vistara to the USA is a great idea and perhaps was always on the table. I say ‘perhaps’ because, in my discussions with Leslie Thng, the CEO of Vistara, he mentioned plans to the USA could be explored in Phase 2. Flying non-stop to the USA would need Vistara to have 787-9 aircraft which have ultra-long-haul capabilities. This would, at the primary level, mean having crew bunks on their 787-9 aircraft where some of the crew can rest while the other team are on active duty. On some aircraft, such as some Air India aircraft which don’t have the crew-bunks, this leads to active revenue loss, as J class seats are left out for the pilot rest and so on.
Vistara has picked up two of their six confirmed 787-9 aircraft in a configuration which will only allow for these aircraft to be flown at the most for 11 hours. It is unclear if any more Vistara aircraft are under production at the moment, but I would be surprised if they are during a time all airlines are trying to conserve cash. However, this is the best time to launch a non-stop to the USA and bring Phase 2 into Phase 1, given Air India and United are the only carriers in this market at the moment, and the preference for non-stop travel is going up. I am not sure how long will Vande-Bharat, and air bubbles survive, but this has effectively led to the Indian travellers’ options being taken away (OCIs etc. can still transit in other countries, but Indians can only fly non-stop to the USA).
Vistara then has publicly acknowledged for the first time that they are drawing up plans to fly to the USA. A Reuters report says,
While the specific timeframe and aircraft requirements are yet to be finalised, Vistara is studying various scenarios for direct flights, Vinod Kannan, chief commercial officer, told Reuters in an interview.
What we don’t know yet, however, is where would the equipment for this service come from, and if it would be leased or bought. The USA service would become a flagship for any airline, so I would have a hard time imagining Vistara would put equipment which would not be to Vistara’s own service design standards. Of course, there are some other 787-9 aircraft, which were whitetails and painted in Vistara colours last year, which could be brought into the mix rather than have them stored in California. I would imagine any move Vistara makes on the USA routes would only include the 787-9s, given inducting a 777 or any other aircraft type would mean going back to writing up the rule book again, preparing the crew for the new aircraft type, heading up to DGCA and getting that aircraft type added in your AOP and so on.
Vistara is exploring if they can go ahead and fast-track their flights to the USA. This is good news for the Indian travellers given they can get a new option on the India – USA route as compared to the broken aircraft of Air India. However, there is no timeline yet, which could mean this could be 3-months out or two years out, and we have no clue about it. But the good thing about Vistara is, they are agile and move fast, so this is entirely believable it could happen quickly if they so wanted.
What do you think of Vistara’s plans to head to the USA? What timeframe would you put on this service being launched?
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