Mumbai: West Asian airlines are increasing flight frequencies between India and the US, the UK and parts of Europe with an eye to draw passengers to hubs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha.
This could stymie plans of local carriers to make India an air travel hub.
Naveen Chawla, regional manager for India at Doha-based Qatar Airways, said the airline deploys 15% of its capacity in India, and that 70% of its passengers out of India are onward travellers that use Doha as a stopover. As part of this strategic initiative, the carrier on Friday announced non-stop services between Doha and Houston, Texas, beginning 30 March.
Saudi Arabian Airlines earlier this week announced adding three new Indian destinations—Bangalore, Kozhikode and Lucknow—beginning 30 March. On that date, Etihad Airways, the national airline of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), will change schedules to key destinations from and within India to greater increased long-haul connectivity.
Emirates, too, is increasing connectivity to India via its hub Dubai.
“The India-UK/US market is clearly important for Middle Eastern carriers and it does not help India hub aspirations. However, Indian airports, airlines, etc., will in the end be sunk or saved depending on quality of decisions and making the right investments,” Craig Jenks, president of Airline/Aircraft Projects Inc., a New York-based air transport advisory, said by email.
These global carriers are not being picky about where they go. Besides Kerala—which is a lode of labour for West Asian countries—and metropolitan cities, they are adding cities such as Nagpur and Tiruchirapalli to their network. Qatar Airways also plans to start flights to Amritsar and Goa later in the year.
According to three different travel houses that Mint spoke to, West Asian carriers are on average 30% cheaper to fly beyond their respective hubs.
“The entire Middle East carriers, especially the airlines from UAE, pose a major strategic threat to all the other carries operating out of India, including Indian carriers,” said Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer, Indian subcontinent and West Asia, at Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, an aviation consulting firm.
In an October interview to Mint, Naresh Goyal, founder chairman of Jet Airways (India) Ltd, India’s top private carrier by passengers, had alleged that West Asian carriers were dumping capacity in India, thus making life of Indian carriers difficult by taking away passengers.
“The big boys of the business like Lufthansa, British Airways and Singapore Airlines (are) already feeling the heat from UAE airlines and the recent consolidation in Europe is also to somewhat address the long-term challenge from Emirates. India unfortunately is still in a self-denial,” Kaul said.
Neerja Bhatia, Etihad’s country manager for India and Sri Lanka, said in an 18 March statement: “We have consciously structured flight schedules to India to provide better connectivity and frequency to the key destinations across the world through our hub in Abu Dhabi.”
Etihad currently has flights to Kochi, Kozhikode, Thiruvananthapuram (all in Kerala), Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai. Under its revised schedule, Thiruvananthapuram will connect to long-haul destinations such as Canada and New York. Flights to West Asian, European and Mediterranean destinations will also see an increase in frequency.
An airport consultant to a number of private airport projects in India said West Asian nations are making substantial investments in their airports. “Dubai, Doha and Abu Dhabi will see huge transformation in coming years. Moreover, flying distance from these places are helping them to position them as a hub. Indian carriers are far behind in this terms,” he said, requesting anonymity because some of his projects are in progress.