Has Vande Bharat Revealed New Route Options For Airlines?

Route planning is a critical task for any airline. Airlines spend time and money studying markets and buying customer search data to find high-demand routes. With international flights from India suspended, Vande Bharat has highlighted a number of high-demand routes that no airlines currently serve. Could Indian airlines explore new routes from Vande Bharat flights?

Air India Repatriation
Repatriation flights may have given airlines new high-demand routes. Photo: Getty Images

Network planning is key

For airlines, network planning is the backbone of any successful operation. Airlines develop software that helps them understand which routes can increase revenue using customer search data, local research, and current competition.

Network planning is more critical now for airlines than ever. As international flights slowly resume, carriers are looking to drop less profitable routes and add any new high-profit routes it can find. Airlines stand to make millions each year by offering direct flights on routes that have little competition.

Delta Airbus A350
Airlines are looking to add new, profitable routes to their networks as flying picks up again. Photo: Airbus.

Indian airlines seem quite bullish on international routes in the coming years. IndiGo has emphasized that the market has huge potential for international expansion. Vistara, too, is looking to expand its international operations with the delivery of its new Dreamliners.

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How does Vande Bharat help route planning?

In May, India launched a massive repatriation effort known as the Vande Bharat Mission (VBM). Since then, VBM has grown to conduct thousands of flights and even flying people out of India. While VBM has given airlines much-needed revenue, it has also given them a glimpse into something arguably more vital: centers of demand.

Vande Bharat flights are planned using data from Indian consulates from all over the world. If embassies receive high demand from citizens wanting to return, the government schedules multiple flights. The logic follows that if people thousands of people are returning from a country, they had to have gotten there in the first place. This is where airlines get to see where there is untapped demand present.

Vistara 787 Dreamliner
Vande Bharat has highlighted cities with possibly untapped demand. Photo: Getty

While a number of destinations on the Vande Bharat list are well-served by both foreign and Indian carriers, there are a few surprising countries that have seen high demand. Let’s study a few examples of such destinations.

Possibly long-haul routes

One long-haul route that airlines could look at is Ukraine, more specifically the capital of Kyiv. India has already conducted 21 flights between Kyiv and a number of Indian cities, with another eight planned. There is clearly the presence of a large community of Indians who reside in Ukraine, demand for which could be tapped by an Indian airline. It is possible that many of these residents will return to Kyiv in the future, creating demand for the route.

Has Vande Bharat Revealed New Route Options For Airlines?
Air India will operate nearly 30 flights from Kyiv by next week, opening a new route opportunity. Photo: Tom Boon – Simple Flying

Although Ukraine International Airlines does fly from Delhi to Kyiv five times a week, it’s unclear if the airline will resume this route (no schedule is currently available). Travelers might opt for an Indian carrier on this long-haul route, presenting a new opportunity for Air India and Vistara. The Delhi-Kyiv route is only one of many possible European routes that airlines could consider when looking at to expand long-haul.

More possible long-haul countries are Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Egypt, and Nigeria. The lack of another long-haul airline has slowed the addition of new routes or more frequencies. Since most of India’s airlines fly narrowbodies, we will now look at some short- or medium-haul routes.

Central Asia routes

One region that remains severely underserved by Indian carriers is Central Asia. No airlines operate flights to any Central Asian country, forcing passengers to mostly choose connecting flights. However, Central Asia has emerged as a key region during VBM, and with the region easily in the range of the A320 and 737, could airlines look to expand here?

Delhi to Central Asia Map
Flights from Central Asian have seen high demand, especially from Russia and Kyrgyzstan. Photo: GCMapper

India will fly 28 flights from Kyrgyzstan, 26 flights from Russia, and 5 flights from Kazakhstan, among others from the region. With over 50 flights from the region, there is a clear presence of demand from the region. With these cities within easy reach of low-cost airlines’  narrowbody fleets, we could see airlines quickly add flights.

More opportunities

Vande Bharat has opened a trove of unique routes that airlines can now further study to include in their network. The lack of a private long-haul international airline has left key routes such as Sydney, Auckland, Dublin, and more without any connections. Vistara is the most likely candidate to pick up some of these routes, however, the airline will likely focus on a high-profit route (such as London or Tokyo) due to current circumstances.

The Middle East has seen the largest number of VBM flights due to the presence of many Indian migrant workers in the region. While this region does have flights from nearly every major Indian airline, carriers may add more city pairs seeing the current demand. Some cities, such as Bahrain, might also see private Indian airlines enter after VBM.

The massive size of the Indian diaspora (nearly 30 million) means that airlines can count on demand to be present on any major route that they decide to add. Additionally, India has a particularly high amount of VFR traffic (visiting friends and relatives), providing sustained passenger numbers on these routes.

United 787
United received permission to fly charter flights from India, setting the stage for more airlines. Photo: United Airlines

While over 500,000 Indians have now returned home under VBM, demand is growing for international flights from India. The government has now brought in private airlines to take over short-haul routes to the Middle East, who may decide to add more routes to the region saying the thousands returning. Meanwhile, United recently became the first foreign carrier to operate flights from India since the pandemic, after the US’ complaint. It’s clear that the Indian market has huge opportunity for expansion in the coming years.

What do you think about VBM being useful for route planning? Will airlines add routes soon? Let us know in the comments!

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