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Vistara plans to start direct long-haul flights to the US with its Boeing 787-9 aircraft during October-December 2021, the airline’s chief commercial officer Vinod Kannan said on Thursday.

“Having received a temporary foreign air carrier permit from the department of transportation, USA, we are hopeful of starting long-haul operations to the US in the last quarter of the year," Kannan said.

The airline, a joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines, is also evaluating opportunities to operate similar flights to other international destinations, he said. “The strong preference for non-stop, direct connectivity among customers has been a source of encouragement for us," Kannan said.

Vistara had in 2018 placed an order for 50 Airbus A320neos and A321neos and six Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners to expand its operations, especially on the international front.

The carrier flew to nearby international destinations such as Singapore, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and the UAE before international flights from India were grounded in March 2020 following the coronavirus outbreak.

Vistara now flies to three international destinations, Doha, Frankfurt, and London, but has permission to operate special international flights under the bilateral air bubble to eight destinations, including Dhaka, Dubai, Sharjah, Malé, and Tokyo. The airline is all set to begin its Tokyo operations in July.

“These operations have not only helped us to introduce Vistara in markets that were already part of our expansion plans, but have also helped us make inroads into new geographies, paving the way for a strong foothold for Vistara in global aviation," Kannan said.

“Having said that, a recovery in international operations depends on various factors, including the governments of the two countries agreeing to open borders to each other. With vaccines being administered across the globe, we hope to see a positive outcome," he said.

Vistara has 47 aircraft, comprising 36 Airbus A320s, three A321neos, six Boeing 737-800s, and two 787-9s in its fleet. “We expect to receive the remaining four Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner aircraft by mid-2022 along with more from the order we placed with Airbus for A321neo and A320neo aircraft. Overall, we aim to have around 70 aircraft by 2023," Kannan said.

Older Boeing 737-800NG aircraft in the airline’s fleet, which are on short term lease, will be phased out gradually, he said.

Rating agency Crisil Limited expects the second wave of covid-19 to push back revival of business travel and pick-up of international traffic. In a report released on 10 June, Crisil said that air passenger traffic volumes this fiscal year are expected to be about 60% of fiscal 2020 levels with recovery to pre-pandemic levels happening only by the fourth quarter of fiscal 2023.

However, Vistara’s international expansion plans remain on track despite the pandemic because of the strong financials of its promoters, said an analyst tracking the aviation sector for a foreign brokerage.

“The grounding of Jet Airways (in 2019) left the market with only one Indian full service carrier (Air India Limited) catering to long-haul destinations. Vistara senses an opportunity and is scaling up its international presence," the analyst said, requesting anonymity.

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