Air India, now owned by the TATA group, announced the induction of aircraft in its fleet which will take the fleet up by 25 percent. This comes after the airline has already operationalised 16 aircraft, which were grounded for a long time. These 16 include 10 narrow-body and six wide-body aircraft. The airline did a rejig of its domestic network and added frequencies on metro routes in the last days of August.
The airline has signed lease agreements and Letter of Intent (LoI) for 25 Airbus and 5 Boeing aircraft. The Airbus plan comprises 21 A320neo and 4 A321neo, while the 5 Boeing aircraft are five B777-200LRs.
The “-200LR” is an interesting choice because only recently the airline had come out with a tender to sell three of the same variant which it has in its fleet! With just 61 of this subtype ever manufactured, speculation turned to confirmation on which these aircraft would be.
Which are these planes and how are they available?
These planes are widely expected to be those which were with Delta Air Lines. The B777 joined Delta’s fleet in 1999. In 2006, the airline took delivery of its first 777-200LR becoming the first US airline to do so. This helped the airline start new non-stop and ultra-long-haul markets that no other airliner could fly back then. Ten out of 18 B777s which the airline had were the -200LR, half of which would come to Air India. Amongst its destinations was Mumbai, which the airline launched in December 2019 but has not returned since the pandemic started.
The airline had decided to retire all of these by the end of 2020, as the pandemic peaked and demand plummeted. The last commercial flight operated on October 31, 2020.
The airline had spent “multi million dollars” to update the 18 B777s and completed that project in 2019. This includes installing new suites with doors in business class, adding a premium economy cabin and placing mood lighting in the cabin.
The Business class was called “Delta Suites” and was designed with an emphasis on exceptional customer comfort and privacy. It offers each customer a private space accessed by a sliding door with thoughtfully designed personal stowage areas, an advanced in-flight entertainment system, and premium trim and finishes to create an unparalleled business class experience with a comfortable, residential feel.
The premium economy section was called “Delta Premium Select” and catered to a range of options, allowing customers to tailor travel to their specific needs by providing additional space (with adjustable head and footrests) and elevated service.
The airline retrofitted 777s will feature 18.5″ wide Main Cabin Seats — the widest of Delta’s international fleet. Each customer will also have personal power ports and complimentary premium entertainment on individual seatback screens.
A look at flight tracking website FlightRadar24 shows that there are five aircraft which were active on some day in 2022. These five are N701DN, N702DN, N703DN, N705DN and N708DN. These aircraft are configured with 28 Business, 48 premium economy and 220 economy class seats, a total of 296 seats. Currently the three aircraft with Air India are configured in three classes comprising 8 First, 35 Business and 195 Economy class seats.
Introduction of Premium Economy
These five aircraft will be the only ones to offer Premium economy in Air India’s network. While the existing and new aircraft will continue to have three classes, the classes will be different.
The airline has announced flights to Newark, New York and San Francisco from Mumbai and San Francisco from Bengaluru. What the airline has not made clear is that if these new aircraft would operate the new routes or will it be the existing routes which will get these planes. An analysis may still be underway to see what would work best before flights are open for sale.
How does this bode for Air India? I do not see these aircraft in the fleet for a very long time. This looks like an intermediate step till the airline firms up plans for a larger fleet renewal exercise and product standardisation. Globally, a lot of airlines are moving towards either introducing Premium Economy as the fourth class of service or ditching First class and introducing Premium Economy. Few airline leaders have dubbed it as the most profitable per square foot space in the aeroplane! This experiment would help Air India decide the future. Vistara – majority owned by TATA group already has a premium economy section for both domestic and international operations.
There was a possibility of Air India having redone the interiors. But millions of dollars have been spent on these planes only recently. In addition, the current supply chain issues in the aviation world has seen a shortage of just about everything including seats and one is not sure if Air India would have got the seats on time for the induction.
Like always, there are many ways of looking at everything in aviation. Where do you deploy the five aircraft which are configured with premium economy? Should it be from Delhi from where the routes have matured or Delhi as the largest hub is well placed to attract some traffic in the First class which the existing aircraft have? All of them aren’t coming in together which means there will have to be a progressive induction.
The US carriers are known to use upgrades effectively to ensure that loyalty members are happy along with freeing up space for cabins which are selling better. It is high time Air India moves to a similar model, backed by relevant IT infrastructure. Hopefully that will be soon!
What is also unclear is if and how the airline will make use of existing Inflight Entertainment (IFE) as well as messaging services in these five aircraft.
This website will do another post when the new flights are open for sale and look at how the five aircraft are progressively inducted in the fleet and open for reservations.
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