Virgin Atlantic made its India debut in July 2000 when the airline launched its flight to India’s capital, New Delhi. Back then, Virgin Atlantic was a boutique airline fuelled by the ambitions of a maverick entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson. A lot has changed since then. Today, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is a minority shareholder (20%) in the airline with Delta Air Lines, Inc. being the largest shareholder (49%) along with Air France-KLM (31%).
The airline, till date, continues to fly to New Delhi daily. The route has stood the test of time and completes its twentieth anniversary next year. That is an achievement for an airline of its size and credit should be given to teams in India and the world over, who have made this route a success.
Double Daily to New Delhi
In a surprise announcement, the airline today said it will double its flights to New Delhi starting Summer 2020. The second daily service to New Delhi will depart London in the morning and will offer customers a choice of departures at both ends.
Virgin Atlantic’s current offering to New Delhi entails overnight flights from London and daylight flights from New Delhi limiting the airline to only Origin & Destination (O & D) traffic. The India-UK market has grown steadily since the airline started flying to India and Virgin Atlantic has over the years, intermittently, operated the largest aircraft in its fleet to New Delhi.
The late evening arrival of the current flight from New Delhi into London makes onward connections to the United States difficult, as the vast majority of flight to the US have already departed.
Currently from New Delhi, the airline only offers seamless connections to two destinations in the US i.e. Boston and New York – JFK. These are made possible by the late evening departures to both the cities from London.
Connections are the lifeline for any long-haul route and the second daily service, which departs and arrives into London Heathrow in the morning, ensures seamless connections to the entire US network operated by Virgin Atlantic and its trans-Atlantic partner, Delta through London Heathrow.
This service will, in all likelihood, be operated by a Boeing 787-9 which will be freed up as a result of the airline dropping one of the two daily services it currently offers to Johannesburg.
Virgin Atlantic – Delta – Air France-KLM Joint Venture
Virgin Atlantic is backed and part-owned by Delta, the world’s most profitable airline and its partners in Europe, Air France-KLM. Delta has separately operated joint ventures with Air-France KLM and Virgin Atlantic for several years. However, in August this year, both tie-ups were combined with now all of the four airlines being part of one joint venture.
The joint venture helps each airline offer great value to their customers as they may book flights on another partner airline, fly via a partner hub and yet earn frequent flier miles on their favourite airline. It also provides airlines with antitrust immunity, allowing them to coordinate schedules and pricing.
This joint venture helps Virgin Atlantic flights to India as they have sister airlines who will help market these flights to their customers.
Joint venture businesses like this one are often widely criticised for reducing competition on routes, which in turn, raises fares. Nonetheless, these joint ventures and the impact they have on competition is a topic for discussion for another day.
Virgin Atlantic to Mumbai – Off to a shaky start, Again.
Virgin Atlantic has not had the same success with its flights to, Mumbai (the financial capital of India) as it has with its flights to New Delhi. The demise of Jet Airways, who operated three daily flights between London Heathrow and Mumbai, prompted Virgin Atlantic to restart flights between the two cities (for the third time in the last few years) this year. The airline has operated twice in the past to Mumbai from London unsuccessfully.
Virgin Atlantic, in its first attempt at Mumbai in 2005, had a similar schedule as its current flight to New Delhi. The airline dropped the route shortly citing financial woes. When the airline decided to launch flights a second time around in 2012, they decided to reschedule the flight to have a morning departure from London Heathrow, ensuring seamless connections to most of its network to the US. This too didn’t help and the airline, once again, dropped the route in 2015.
Virgin Atlantic resumed its flight to Mumbai at the beginning of the current Winter 2019/20 schedule operated daily on a Boeing 787-9.
Within weeks of relaunching its flight, the airline seems to be retiming this service and aligning the schedule to its current New Delhi flight i.e. late evening departure from Heathrow and early morning arrival into India. The retiming of the schedule is, in all likelihood, due to tepid demand for premium cabins from corporates. The current 03:00 AM departure from Mumbai is not ideal for O&D traffic between the London and Mumbai.
This, along with the airlines chequered past in Mumbai, does not instil much confidence in the airline as far as the Mumbai market is concerned. How is the airlines’ sales team meant to garner support for a flight which is being retimed within weeks of the relaunch, in an extremely competitive market like Mumbai, is beyond us.
In all likelihood, the morning slot used by the Mumbai service will be used for the second daily service to New Delhi. Late evening slots at Heathrow aren’t as valuable and are comparatively easy to come by.
Vistara – The “desi tadka” to the sassy, red-hot Virgin cocktail
Vistara, a joint venture of Tata Sons Limited and Singapore Airlines Limited (SIA) is in the process of inducting Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft. The first two, if not three, of these aircraft, will be delivered between January and March 2020.
Since its launch in 2015, Vistara has successfully made a name of itself in the extremely challenging Indian aviation market. The airline, however, continues to make a loss as it scales its business both in India and overseas.
Vistara is a New Delhi based airline and has an extensive domestic network from the capital city. The airline has built a reasonable network out of Mumbai too with slots handed over to the airline after the grounding of Jet Airways. However, the connectivity in New Delhi is far superior and ideal for feeding long haul flights. Hence, it is not difficult to assume the first long haul flights on the Boeing 787-9 will be flown from the airline’s home and hub, New Delhi.
London and Tokyo are widely speculated to be the airlines first long-haul destinations to be operated by the Boeing 787-9 aircraft.
May the best airline win or better still – both survive
Virgin Atlantic’s second daily flight between London and New Delhi will almost certainly impact Vistara’s plans to mount flights to London from New Delhi.
The New Delhi-London route was operated once daily by Jet Airways on a Boeing 777-300ER. With Virgin announcing a daily flight from Summer 2020, the void created by Jet Airways is to a great extent filled.
Virgin Atlantic backed by Delta and Air France-KLM, will have a definite advantage when it comes to the US, Europe and UK point of sale, which is stronger than the India point of sale. The combined frequent flier base of the four airlines gives Virgin Atlantic a huge head start.
Vistara on the other hand, will be able to feed its long-haul flights to London from the rest of India. Despite selling one-stop itineraries via New Delhi, Vistara will have access to Tier 2 & 3 markets like Chandigarh, Pune, Indore, Raipur, Bhubaneshwar, Ranchi, etc. which are not yet served by the Gulf carriers.
Both airlines will offer the same three cabins of service i.e. Economy, Premium Economy and Business.
Nonetheless, if Vistara does plan to take on their interline partner, Virgin Atlantic, both airlines will initially be faced with challenging yields.
The real winner will be the customer, who will finally see airfares on the New Delhi-London route fall back for normalcy.