Vistara adds five weekly flights to London Heathrow

Vistara, the TATA-SIA JV, has announced the launch of its 5x weekly flight to London Heathrow from Mumbai. This will be its second service to London Heathrow, where it already operates a daily departure from Delhi. The flights are effective June 01,2023.

I had written about this possibility in one of my blogs recently. This just adds to the list of predictions which I have done in the past about this airline and got it right. It includes, stocking my neck out to say that the airline will indeed operate to Heathrow, the fleet mix and seating configuration.

Prima facie this looks like a no brainer in terms of route, but you always face two options if not more. Strengthen Delhi with a double daily or add Mumbai and strengthen the offering at London? The airline seems to have chosen the later – which could also be partially dictated by slots

The flights will operate at below timings

UK015 BOM1350 – 1910LHR 1

UK016 LHR2055 – 1015(+1)BOM 1

UK015 BOM1430 – 1955LHR 2457

UK016 LHR2155 – 1100(+1)BOM 2457

The airline will operate one of the three dreamliners which are from its own order for this route, unlike Frankfurt from Delhi where it operates the short term leased aircraft which earlier operated for Hainan Airways. The new route was possible after the delivery of VT-TSP which landed in Delhi on March 30, 2023. This delivery flight had a 30% blend of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). With this induction, the 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft in its fleet went up to 4, with three of these being from its own order and one on short term lease.

Market and competition

The India – UK Bilateral Air Services Agreement (BASA) caps flights between London Heathrow to Mumbai/Delhi at 56 flights a week from each side. There are no restrictions on flights to other airports in London or the UK and likewise at airports beyond Mumbai and Delhi. 

Currently, British Airways operates 21 weekly flights to Mumbai and 14 weekly to Delhi, while Virgin Atlantic operates 14 weekly to Delhi and seven weekly to Mumbai ensuring that the UK side of BASA is fully exhausted. With Vistara’s new service, the utilisation from Indian side would be 17 weekly flights from Delhi by Air India and 14 weekly from Mumbai, along with seven weekly from Delhi and five weekly from Mumbai by Vistara, a total of 43 weekly departures, leaving room for eleven more weekly flights from the Indian side. 

Air India has market and frequency leadership on the Delhi – London Heathrow route, while British Airways takes that role on the Mumbai – London Heathrow route.

The numbers are for passengers who flew nonstop between India – UK or Mumbai /Delhi – London. The market size is much larger with passengers opting to fly via the middle eastern and other european hubs. London Heathrow is an aspirational route for every carrier.

Tata power

Vistara is set to merge with Air India by March 2024. There are nine frequencies which are yet unutilised from the Indian side but even when capacity is available, the challenge is slots. As a combined power, the airline will be in a better position to compete with the British duo of British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.

Five weekly?

The airline has approval for daily pair of slots starting April 10, 2023 yet it choose to operate only 5x weekly. For a student of Network Planning, it is a very curious case. How can one not operate all approved flights to London Heathrow of all places.

Even if its London Heathrow, that doesn’t assure confirm profitability. No wonder then that the airline choose to have sufficient lead time to sell the flight. The airline has enough internal data to know the peak days for London Heathrow to know the optimum launch capacity and in this case opting for Wednesdays and Saturdays to not operate the flight. I was a little surprised with this because Tuesdays are typically the weak days. Lastly, we do not know the exact slots which have been handed out for the two days when the airline is not operating. It may well be possible that the slots were such that it was rotationally infeasible to operate the flight.

With a 5x weekly, the capacity and rotation has been controlled well and also allows for optimized rotating of the aircraft, giving sufficient time for maintenance. What happens to the slots? In most cases, the first set of slots have no historicity and the airline will try to get same timed slots for winter and increase frequency to daily effective winter schedule.

The last question to answer will be why the delay in launch? The existing 787s of the airline are yet to undergo major checks and there is a likelihood that those are due. The spare aircraft does steps in when an aircraft is temporarily away. The newest aircraft is currently deployed on Delhi – London – Delhi. Overall, the current arrangement helps with a measured entry, swaps, handling challenges of new base (Mumbai) and recovery of aircraft, since the four aircraft will see gaps on Tuesdays and Thursdays (Delhi – Paris does not operate), Wednesdays and Saturdays (Mumbai – London does not operate) and additional slot on Wednesday when Delhi – Frankfurt does not operate. Does a non daily product make it uncompetitive? It definitely does, but network planning is about achieving a balance across various parameters and the key word always is optimum and not maximum

Network Thoughts

A slot at London Heathrow is a prized position. Understandably, this will not be a historic allocation and a seasonal one but this is how an airline starts making its presence felt – one step at a time, till the allocation becomes permanent. Over a period of time, airlines get the opportunity to adjust the slots with different timings to one with same timings and build historicity. 

With a single dreamliner in Mumbai, and three in Delhi – the engineering and maintenance teams at Mumbai will take care of what is known as Daily Inspection (DI) and on the basis of engineering and pilot reports, the aircraft will be swapped at London to take it to Delhi. Hence the importance of timings at London Heathrow. For all of us who are students of aviation, it is a great way to learn how operations work in real life to ensure tails are rotated effectively for maintenance, cycles and hours. Though the flight being 5x weekly and not daily means that there is ability to rotate it between Mumbai and Delhi as domestic service.

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