Understanding the India – UK Bilateral Air Services Agreement

There has constantly been a rumour of Virgin Atlantic adding flights to Bengaluru, even before Vistara announced flights to London Heathrow from Mumbai. As Vistara’s flights opened for sale, debate raged on about why they are 5x weekly when they are holding slots for all days of the week. It also makes sense to look at these in detail, on the backdrop of some carriers trying to start operations in the United Kingdom with a sole business plan of serving India.

Here is a look at the details of the Air Services Agreement (ASA), between the two countries. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in New Delhi in April 2005, between the Government of India and the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Let us look at the summary of this agreement which is in force right now and with the India – UK segment always on the top of LCCs, could see some presence in near future.

Route Schedule for Designated Airlines

The ASA allows the airlines from the UK to fly from “Points in the United Kingdom” to “Points in India” via any two intermediate points and points beyond India. Likewise the ASA also allows airlines from India to fly from “Points in India” to “Points in the UK” via any two intermediate points and points beyond the UK. 

Air India used to operate to Newark from Ahmedabad via London Heathrow, which falls in one of these categories – “points beyond the UK”. These are subject to clearance from the two aeronautical authorities as discussed and decided from time to time.

Capacity and Traffic rights

The ASA is structured in multiple ways. The India – Turkey ASA, for example, is capped by frequencies. The India – UAE (Dubai) is capped by seats. There are and have been ASA’s which also specify the largest aircraft that can be deployed and for long it always had the B747-400, which has slowly made way for wording which does not talk about the aircraft deployment. 

The India – UK ASA on the other hand is complex, since it is a mix of capping frequencies and open skies, a one of its kind creation! Let us look at it one by one.

London Heathrow – New Delhi – Mumbai 

For most airlines, it is a dream to fly to London Heathrow and airlines in the past went to great lengths to operate to Heathrow. The airport is unique in its own ways and that includes granting grandfather rights on slots which can then be leased or sold to make quick bucks. In some cases, sale of slots has led to airlines turning around and in other, the sale or lease of slots has fetched more money for airlines than what operations could.

The ASA allows designated airlines from each side to operate up to 56 weekly services on routes to London Heathrow – New Delhi and London Heathrow – Mumbai, and vice versa. Currently the UK carriers (British Airways and Virgin Atlantic) have exhausted their quota of 56 weekly services to New Delhi and Mumbai from London Heathrow. This does not put a cap on the aircraft type that can be deployed for these flights.

Routes other than those to London Heathrow, for the carriers of UK

Starting Winter 2005, the designated airlines of the UK were allowed to operate to any airport India and vice versa with a total capacity limit of seven services per week to and from each airport. However, for Bengaluru and Chennai, this limit stands at 14 services per week each (which came in effect from Summer 2006). Currently British Airways operates a Daily service to Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Chennai from London Heathrow.

This leaves the option open for Virgin Atlantic (or British Airways) to add seven more flights a week to both Bengaluru and Chennai, while neither can add capacity at Hyderabad.

The seven services per week capacity limit means that if the airline decides to serve a point in India from multiple points in the UK, it will be capped to seven flights a week at that airport, except New Delhi and Mumbai which are covered under a separate section and Bengaluru and Chennai which has a cap of 14 frequencies. If Virgin Atlantic decides to operate Manchester – New Delhi, which it has announced but could not start, it will be capped at seven flights a week.

For the Indian carriers, there is a dream run here with the designated carriers being allowed to operate without capacity limited on any route between India and the United Kingdom, beyond the Mumbai – London Heathrow and New Delhi – London Heathrow combination. 

Last season, Air India operated flights to Heathrow from Kochi, Goa, Ahmedabad, Amritsar, Hyderabad amongst others. The airline also operated from Bengaluru and Kolkata during the pandemic. This season, the airline has restricted Heathrow ops to New Delhi and Mumbai, making the most of the bilaterals while starting flights to London Gatwick from Amritsar, Ahmedabad, Goa and Kochi.


The ASA also agrees on co-terminalisation, a term used to describe a triangular operation or one touching more than one point in the other country. The designated airline or airlines of the United Kingdom may not operate more than 7 services per week as co-terminals and only to/from Kolkata behind Delhi. This allows the airlines from the UK to operate to Kolkata via Delhi. The Indian carriers are not allowed to operate more than 7 services per week as co-terminals amongst any two points in the UK.

Air India has had triangular routes to Sydney – Melbourne, Milan – Rome in the recent past but has not operated such a route in the United Kingdom.

Tail Note

With so many complexities, one would still wonder why Vistara is not utilising two of its slots at Heathrow and if Virgin Atlantic would indeed start flights to Bengaluru. The probable answer to the first question could be found in my updated blog in the next few days.

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