India’s Civil Aviation Minister Pushes for More Widebody Jets: Is It Possible?

In comments today, Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia urged Indian airlines to add more jumbo jets to their fleets and increase international destinations. His statement comes as foreign carriers dominate international traffic and the country sees little investment in long-haul aircraft. However, there is a reason behind this and here is what needs to change.

India has less than 50 jumbo jets in service

As India moves closer to reopening international flights to pre-pandemic standards, the spotlight is once again on the inequity of traffic distribution. Only two Indian airlines, Air India and Vistara, operate the jumbo jets needed to fly to much of Europe, North America, the Far East and Oceania.

The flag carrier actively operates 43 wide-body aircraft (27 Boeing 787s and 16 777s) while newcomer Vistara flies two 787s (four on order). For a market of nearly 70 million annual international travelers (2018), this is a fraction of the capacity needed to dominate the market. Jyotiraditya Scindia wants airlines to change that with new widebody orders.

Airbus A350

Airbus showed off its A350-900 in Delhi and Hyderabad last week in hopes of ending Boeing’s control of the market. Photo: Gaurav Joshi | single flight

In a statement today at the Wings India Air Show, he said:

“Along with our push on narrowbody aircraft, we also need to increase our fleet of widebody aircraft. It’s not enough to connect all the dots in India, we need to connect the world to India.”

But here is why Indian airlines avoided this decision.

The Indian market is managed by hub airlines

The reason behind India’s few jumbo jets isn’t a lack of demand, it’s an abundance of cheaper supply. The market is now handled by Middle Eastern super connectors like Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad (known as ME3). ME3 had a 17.1% market share in 2019-20, ahead of Air India’s 11.6% and IndiGo’s 11.5%.

While that may not seem like a big gap, hub carriers have cornered traffic to Europe and North America, key markets that need widebody aircraft. By offering services to more than 10 cities, these airlines can charge much lower fares than their local competitor Air India and easily grab any non-metro traffic.

GettyImages-1339270945 Emirates A380

Emirates is operating more than 170 weekly flights from nine Indian cities on April 1, restoring pre-pandemic networks. Photo: Getty Images

Previously, Jet Airways attempted to compete with ME3 by expanding globally with leased 777s and A330s, but soon began to suffer heavy losses. Although Etihad eventually took a stake in Jet, in return for lucrative landing slots, Jet folded in 2019 and only ceded more of the market to ME3. Combined with Air India’s business woes, it has left a stern message to Indian airlines: don’t try to compete with hub carriers on international routes. So can this change?

Adding more planes is part of the equation

Increasing the market share of Indian airlines is a chicken and egg situation. To increase traffic, airlines need jumbo jets and to justify more planes, they need more passengers. However, with the purchase of Air India and Vistara by Tata, the nation finally has a company that can afford to buy more planes and challenge connecting airlines by launching new routes. The pandemic has shown us that there is no shortage of demand for direct flights; hopefully the post-pandemic era will see carriers able to take advantage of this.

What do you think of the new jumbo jets in India? Let us know in the comments!

Source: Reuters.

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