Virgin Atlantic has not given up on the idea of launching flights to Indian destinations even though it entered into a code share agreement with IndiGo, an Indian domestic low-cost airline that has over 50 percent of the domestic market share. Virgin is keen to expand its Indian footprint while IndiGo says too early to say if it will fly to the UK.

The codeshare was announced on Wednesday and allows customers to book a Virgin ticket on a flight from London Heathrow to Delhi and Mumbai to connect to seven Indian cities including the southern Indian cities of Chennai, Bengaluru, and Hyderabad. Later in the year, the agreement will be expanded to cover sixteen destinations in India and connections to the Virgin’s extensive US network through Heathrow.

India’s the fastest growing aviation market in the world so, we definitely are exploring growth opportunities for ourselves as well in the next few years,” a Virgin official said. When asked whether the expansion of Virgin’s footprint in India was dependent on the delivery of more aircraft, the official said that the airline is to start taking newer aircraft this autumn and will definitely explore opportunities to deploy them. Virgin will take delivery of the first of sixteen Airbus A330-900s in October.

India and the United Kingdom have exchanged an open skies agreement which allows British carriers to fly to other metro cities in India apart from Delhi and Mumbai which are slot constrained. At the moment Virgin flies three times per day to India – twice daily to Delhi and once daily to the financial capital Mumbai. British Airways is the other UK carrier that operates multiple flights a week to various Indian cities. From the Indian side, Air India and Vistara operate between India and UK. Apart from this, Middle Eastern carriers like Emirates, Qatar, and Etihad and also European carriers like Lufthansa, Air France, KLM, and Finnair offer travelers from India and the UK the option of using their services on the India-UK route.

A321XLR offers new opportunities for IndiGo

Interestingly, IndiGo also does not rule out the possibility of launching flights between India and the UK. The airline expects to start taking delivery of its first Airbus A321XLR sometime in 2024-2025, which will allow it to fly further. At the moment the longest international flight that IndiGo operates is from India to Istanbul.

IndiGo officials said that the airline is looking at multiple opportunities to deploy the A321XLR with its 8.700-kilometer range, adding that the airline will announce routes as and when they are finalized and regulatory approvals are through.  “The XLR is a couple of years down the road. We are trying out the network of what is happening. But it is too early to say,” an IndiGo official said. Asked whether the process should not start now given the slots issue at London Heathrow, the official replied, “Two years is a bit too early. You usually apply the season before.”  

It is not difficult to understand why airlines are keen to connect India and the UK. It is a Visiting Friends and Relatives market with a high demand for seats. In late August this year, the latest UK immigration statistics showed that nearly 118,000 Indian students received a student visa in the year ending June 2022 – an 89 percent increase from the previous year. India has overtaken China as the largest nationality being issued sponsored study visas in the UK, the British High Commission in Delhi said in a statement.

Similarly, a statement issued by the British High Commission in India in 2019 said that over half a million Indians received visitors visa for the year ending June 2019 adding that this was an 11 percent increase over the previous year.

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Former Senior Deputy Editor at Business Line (aka The Hindu Business Line)

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