I have traditionally been a student of domestic network in India trying to remember the history, rotation and traffic patterns for an airport or an airline. Time and again, I rely on some of my friends to understand the international connections and networks. This time around, I decided to team up with Rishul – a student of engineering and a keen follower of Jet Airways network to attempt writing about what the change in Etihad’s USA bank means to the Indian customer.
Etihad flagged off its 2ndDaily non-stop flight to New York’s John F. Kennedy airport (JFK) on 1stMarch 2014, where competitor Emirates already operates double daily and direct from neighboring Dubai in addition to one via Milan. Emirates will also add another frequency from March 2015.
However, this is the first of many flights as Etihad starts an aggressive expansion in North America. The airline would start 3 new destinations in the United States within a span of 8 months backed by a strong demand from India which is being fed into Abu Dhabi by its equity partner Jet Airways.
Traditionally network carriers – which work on a hub and spoke model, schedule flights to a region at a particular time. Example – all flights from Europe to India would typically leave around mid-day to reach at night in India and depart so as to reach early morning in Europe. Departures to USA would be at similar time to ensure connectivity from east to west. This departure of flights is known as a bank of departures.
Cost of opportunity
As they say, cost of opportunity cannot be ascertained and when Etihad decided to go ahead and buy a 24% stake in Jet Airways and purchase the Jet Privilege Frequent Flier Program, it also came with an exponential increase in seat allotment from India to Abu Dhabi allowing new frequencies and destinations. While most of the tier II connections will be flown by Jet Airways, the major metro would see expansion from Etihad too.
Etihad Airways had clearly maintained the importance of a strong feed from India and how dipping deep into the Indian market was to play a pivotal role in their planned growth. With the launch of their flights to Abu Dhabi from Chennai and Kochi, continuing on to Dammam and Kuwait, in the 2nd week of January, Jet-Etihad had given a very clear indication of the hub in Abu Dhabi they were working towards, which was re-enforced by the addition of the Hyderabad and Bengaluru to Abu Dhabi flights from 1st of March.
The hub was structured around the 2nd daily to New-York JFK, operated by a Jet Airways B777 aircraft, leaving Abu Dhabi at 0145 hours Local Time (LT), and returning at 0920 LT the next day, thus adding another bank of departures to the United States, later in 2014 EY added late afternoon departures to 6 India destinations, returning back to AUH by midnight, thus providing an Etihad operated connection to the JFK, newly launched SFO and other European flights.
Jet Airways was supposed to operate this flight but for the downgrade in status of Indian aviation by Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) which now bars any airline in India to add flights to United States. Etihad went on to add flights to Dallas Fort-Worth and Los Angeles using the 77Ls they had acquired from Air India.
Coinciding with the enhanced availability of the US Preclearance, 9W-EY announced a major overhaul of schedules to their India – AUH – North American flight structure, w.e.f 29th March 2015. While in actual addition were just 21 weekly flights from Ahmedabad, Mangalore and Pune, along with additional wide body services from Etihad, there was a major shift in timings of Etihad’s North-American Departures.
While Emirates has a mixed departure bank to USA, Etihad is trying to get maximum early morning arrivals into USA and could see further time changes in the next season as the India feed stabilizes.
- To Toronto and Chicago from Abu Dhabi – which now leave late night from Abu Dhabi reaching early morning at destination.
- Delaying the departure from New York to popular late afternoon 1530 hours, along with re-timing San Francisco departure so ensure that the arrival bank is stronger than ever.
Etihad now has two very prominent USA departure / arrival banks
- Red eye departures to New York, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago; returning back between 1200 – 1300 hours LT.
- Mid-morning departures to Los Angeles, New York, Dallas; returning back during late evening hours.
This is far cry from Emirates bank to New York, Seattle, Houston, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco – which leaves mid-morning and returns late evening and flights to Dallas and Washington along with the second frequency to New York which leaves post-midnight returning in the afternoon.
Qatar Airways flies to seven destinations in the United States – all in one bank of mid-morning departures, barring Philadelphia which departs post mid night and does not connect to any Indian destination within an acceptable connection time. With just one bank of flights to India, the options are limited but connections are perfect.
Etihad would look at two banks of arrivals at Abu Dhabi from India
- First between 2200 and 0100 which sees arrival from ten destinations and another between 0600 and 0800 from another 10 destinations
- A mini Jet Airways hub at Abu Dhabi with flights from Hyderabad and Chennai going onwards to Dammam and Kuwait City.
- One Mega departure bank between 2100 and 2300 with departures to 13 destinations
- Connection from a total of 23 cities in India to Abu Dhabi and many more in second phase
Combined 9W-EY India Operations
Etihad with equity partner Jet Airways would operate 217 weekly flights to India effective 29thMarch 2015 as compared to 95 of Qatar and 188 of Emirates. While Emirates operates all wide body aircraft, Etihad – Jet Airways would operate the narrow body B737s for all of their flights to Tier-II cities.
With the new timings and addition of another bank of departure, Etihad – Jet Airways combine would connect Indian cities to New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Dallas, Los Angeles, Washington in a seamless sub 3 hour connection, which is most preferred with travelers.
What would add up to this is the pre-clearance facility at Abu Dhabi which means that you land in USA as a domestic passenger having done your immigration during transit at Abu Dhabi.
Cities like Mangalore, Goa, Lucknow and Pune which see limited competition have longish connection times for few cities. Passengers from these cities tend to look for flying out of their own city rather than change flights at one of the hubs in India and then again in Middle east or Europe.
With fast expanding network of Etihad not just to United States but also to Europe and Etihad investing in Alitalia and Etihad Regional in Europe – passengers from tier – II cities in India are an attractive lot who can now transit at Abu Dhabi and reach their destination one stop.
While this change means a lot for feeder traffic, it also has positive implications for traffic originating in United States with New York, San Francisco and Chicago getting early morning arrivals. The differentiator here would be pre-clearance, however this will continue to be a tough market for Etihad with Emirates mounting flight after flight and upgrading flights to A380.
This change gives a big boost to Jet Airways aircraft utilization – from parking the planes overnight at Abu Dhabi, they will not have a full rotation. The existing utilization which has already crosses 11.7 hours, could well cross 12 hours post this change.
The bonding between Jet Airways & Etihad will only increase from here on as the inter dependency increases, with the entire bank to Unites states dependent primarily on feed from India for Etihad and the Abu Dhabi shuttles of Jet Airways dependent on Etihad to be filled up.
A little over a year after the deal went through 15 of 23 destinations are already connected to Abu Dhabi. As people say, India – USA market is so dynamic and diverse, that an airline doesn’t have to target growth, it has to merely position itself in the most comfortable way to get the best out of it. So, as Emirates darts A380s to the US with an tremendous network feed, QR fully integrates itself into the One World structure, Air India with incredible India penetration this is the path Etihad has chosen to grow on this sector.
The San Francisco and (2nd daily) New York flights are operated by Jet Airways configured 77Ws, consistency of hard product becomes a problem, business travelers and frequent flyers have always shown an inclination towards familiarity, and while the Jet Airways’ 77Ws have a fairly good hard product, the 737s, can’t match up to EY’s A320s, all of which on the whole creates a negative impact on frequent fliers. Even though, Etihad and partners are moving towards a single hard product, it is still some distance away as of now.
Etihad would find it easy to fill up flights from Tier – II destinations to Abu Dhabi and onwards to Europe and USA as compared to Mumbai or Delhi. The two leading metros have direct connectivity to USA with Air India and United. With Abu Dhabi – USA being a 15 hour non stop flight, the comparable flight from Mumbai or Delhi drops you in Newark or Chicago. The odds of flying these are more if the final destination is not on the network map of Etihad. Etihad will have to grow rapidly in the United States in the next one year.
The airline has been struggling to get hold of the Indian market, even when it is growing leaps and bounds. The next focus, we believe would be on improving the hard product, standardizing it and focusing on marketing and sales efforts.
There would be more in store from the partnership when India is upgraded to Category – I status by FAA, when the airline may launch a India – Abu Dhabi – Chicago by its own B777s either from Mumbai or Delhi and take a decision on its limited operational hub at Brussels.