Air India More Than Doubles Capacity To San Francisco

Last September, Air India announced that they would launch 3x weekly flights between Delhi and San Francisco as of December 2, 2015. This is Air India’s longest route, at 7,706 miles in each direction. While Air India’s other US flights (to Chicago, New York JFK, and Newark) are operated by 777-300ERs, the San Francisco flight is operated by a 777-200LR. This is a fairly sparsely configured aircraft, with just 238 seats.

Air-India-Lounge-London-Heathrow - 46

I had the chance to fly the route in first class shortly after it launched, and was both impressed and disappointed by the product. The part that really impressed me was the incredible ground experience in Delhi, as well as the warmth of the crew working first class.

Air-India-777-First-Class - 28

Anyway, I’ve been curious about how Air India is doing on their new route. Turning a profit on ultra longhaul flights can be very difficult even for a well run airline. Air India, on the other hand, has made horrible financial decision after horrible financial decision, so I think there’s a slightly different threshold for defining what makes an Air India route “successful.”

Air India’s San Francisco flight is going daily

It looks like they’ve been doing quite well on the route, as Air India is planning on making their Delhi to San Francisco flight daily as of winter 2016. That’s some pretty major expansion on their part, especially for a flight as long as this one.

However, it has been rumored for a while that Air India would resume their flight between Delhi and Washington Dulles, though that’s being shelved for now, though will be reconsidered next year.

Per The Times Of India:

Buoyed by the response to its nonstop connection between Delhi and San Francisco (SFO), Air India has decided to make it a daily flight from this winter. The Delhi-SFO route was launched last December as a tri-weekly flight. It has been getting high occupancy despite premium pricing over the one stop options given by Gulf, European, southeast Asian and American airlines.

With Delhi-SFO becoming a daily option, AI has deferred its plans to launch Delhi-Washington nonstop from this winter, said a senior official. “We already have flights from Delhi and Mumbai to New York JFK and Newark (EWR). We will look at the Washington connection next year,” the official said.

“All our US nonstop flights are getting healthy occupancy levels of over 80% and contribute almost one-fifth of our total revenue from international flights. In addition, from Independence Day onwards, we will have a one-stop flight to Newark from Ahmedabad via London,” said the official.

Air India is commanding a price premium on the flight?!

Air India claims they’re able to command a price premium over European and Gulf carriers operating one-stop flights between San Francisco and Delhi. I find that claim curious. While there’s no denying that a nonstop flight is convenient, and could generally command a price premium. However:

  • Air India doesn’t have fully flat business class seats, so I imagine most business travelers would rather connect once and have a fully flat bed, rather than have an angled seat for ~17 hours
  • Most Indian leisure travelers I know avoid Air India at all costs, and far prefer the service on Emirates, Etihad, etc.

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So I do wonder who these passengers paying a premium for Air India are.

In looking at Air India’s fares over random dates, it seems like economy runs ~$1,000 roundtrip, while business class runs ~$4,000 roundtrip.

Air-India-Fare-1

Air-India-Fare

There are certainly cheaper fares out there. For example, Turkish has fares of ~$700 roundtrip in economy, or ~$3,300 roundtrip in business class.

Turkish-Fare-1

Turkish-Fare-2

So yes, I suppose Air India is commanding somewhat of a premium premium over the competition (which has dirt cheap fares), though this route is still a long ways from being high yield, even with good load factors.

Air India’s IFE woes

Air India is notorious for having issues with their inflight entertainment, which seems to be especially problematic on this new route, given how long it is:

Passengers who have flown these routes say there are two main problems on AI planes regarding IFS: not all the sets work and often the entire system is down for long periods of time.

“AI chief Ashwani Lohani has set a target of 100% serviceability of IFE on widebody aircraft used for long flights. AI’s electronic overhaul shop has got more resources to make this happen. A forecast of spares requirement for next two years has been made and provisioning is being done to ensure delivery and availability at the time of need,” said the official.

I can appreciate them wanting to set a goal, but I feel like 100% might not quite be realistic. Even the world’s best airlines don’t achieve 100% reliability on their inflight entertainment.

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Is Air India still cutting first class to San Francisco?

One other interesting thing to note is that back in January, Air India announced that they’d eliminate first class on their 777-200LRs, as a way of adding additional economy class capacity. With these changes, Air India was planning on increasing their economy capacity from 195 seats to 298, which is a staggering increase of 103 seats.

However, in looking at seatmaps, it doesn’t look like this has happened yet, and even looking at flights for next year, first class is still on sale. So perhaps this idea is on hold for now.

Air-India-First-Class - 6

Bottom line

Congrats to Air India for their success on this new route, whatever that might look like in practice. It’s impressive that this flight will be doing daily, especially given their small 777-200LR fleet. I’m surprised United hasn’t entered this market as well with a Boeing 787-9, given that there’s clearly demand for the market. United might actually be able to command a real price premium in the market, given that they have fully flat beds.

Are you surprised by Air India’s “success” on their new San Francisco route?

About lucky

Ben Schlappig (aka Lucky) is a travel consultant, blogger, and avid points collector. He travels about 400,000 miles a year, primarily using miles and points to fund his first class experiences. He chronicles his adventures, along with industry news, here at One Mile At A Time.

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Comments

  1. I booked an economy ticket from SFO-DEL on Air India in December. When I went select my seat I was only given a choices in business class. The confirmation email shows my seat as 8A and when I check online it says the same.

    Can anyone explain this? Was this something having to do with the seat reconfiguration? I just don’t want to get reseated at check in and end up in a middle seat for 15 hours. I tried calling to confirm the seat assignment but the agent was really confusing to talk to.

  2. Really hard to judge the yield like that. Would have to look at biz fares in the next two weeks to see what last minute business travelers are booking and if they are going to pay more for direct or not.

  3. Your assumptions are very wrong. Nonstop ALWAYS commands a price premium. While lie flat seats are nice and all, and people love a good high quality service, ultimately what matters to those who really need to be somewhere quickly is schedule convenience. I’ve worked in pricing / revenue management and planning at several carriers and can tell you from experience that the nonstop always takes the price premium. Even when the product isn’t as good. And that the one stop, even with the nicer service, always is discounted and the cheaper way to go. So yes, Air India isn’t the best experience in every aspect (though your service levels you had were good), for business travelers and for whom time is of the essence, nonstop beats fancy service, and airlines can get a premium for thjat. Apparently SFO-DEL is just that type of market.

  4. “looking at flights for next year, economy class is still on sale.”

    I think you meant first class!

  5. “This is a fairly sparsely configured aircraft, with just 238 seats.” Shouldn’t that say 195?

  6. @Lucky: I don’t get it. “It has been getting high occupancy despite premium pricing over the one stop options given by Gulf, European, southeast Asian and American airlines.”

    That’s true. AI ticket costs are almost always greater than (hence premium pricing) compared to the alternatives, which you proved with your search on Turkish. So, what’s the confusion? That’s one of the reaons why my friends from India avoid flying AI – they are too expensive compared to the competitions from the ME airlines.

    I flew SFO-DEL in June. The flight was full as far as I could tell. I enjoyed the flight. I flew Biz outbound and First inbound. The food was good, the FA was very nice and the seats were sufficiently comfortable. Wish they had a more diverse menu with more snacking options however.

    UA Polaris would be a cool addition on this route – however as usual the service will be poor and the food will be terrible. It’s not surprising that the SFO-DEL route is popular; considering half my dept at Google flies on that route on a frequent basis and that’s just my department at Google.

  7. I personally avoid AI like the plague, but would be willing to give their nonstop longhauls a try. Unfortunately, nothing from Mumbai. If I have to hop BOM-DEL to try it, I might as well fly UA or EK or Etihad or Qatar or TK (OK, maybe not TK anymore) for less…

  8. Within India it is well known that many of the first class and business class passengers will be politicians and their relatives. This is one of the reasons they will not privatize the airline even though it loses so much money.

    I would guarantee this flight will also continue to lose money

    Besides who flies into Delhi from San Francisco if not for the politicians. Most of us have to connect to go to the tech cities of BLR, MAA and HYD. Might as well take Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Cathy and now Sea with their non stop to Singapore. The connections in these Airlines to Indian cities in the south is very good with short layovers.

  9. Re: “commanding” a price premium

    I fully agree with you that this makes no sense for all the reasons you liked and more.

    However I do believe that Air India is “demanding” a price premium on business and first seats and sticking firm even in the face of a complete rejection from potential passengers.

    I am a regular business class flyer between SIN and MAA and this year AI jacked up the fare by 300%. And in spite of of the fact that no one is buying, they are standing firm.

    Could this price hike have been imposed by Star Alliance (to bring AI in line with the other member airlines)?

  10. @George
    Star Alliance is a marketing association It has absolutely ZERO influence on market pricing. That would be illegal, both in the US and internationally. Rather, the market determines the price. Clearly, people are buying AI nonstop SFO DEL, or the flight would go away. AS Lucky reported when he flew it, the flight was completely full in all cabins. If you pull BTS / US government data, you can see that the flight averages over 90% full. Clearly, there’s no “complete rejection”. If there were, people would not be flying on it. Just because you don’t see the value of a nonstop flight doesn’t meant that others don’t and are willing to pay for it. It might not be fancy, but it’s a nonstop flight, and there are enough people willing to pay for it that it’s worthwhile to add more service. Want a cheaper flight? Sure, but that will add hours to the total travel time. SFO DEL is a market with enough people who value time savings over a fancier product, and are willing to pay for it. Just like NYC – India (hence UA’s success in the market, and AI’s resilience).

  11. @Rao

    Is you guarantee based on any actual evidence or is it just anecdotal?

    I have actually flown on that sector multiple times and the aircraft is typically very full – mostly with families and young adults. The bay area and San Jose has a huge diaspora of Indians. Flying directly to SFO via DEL is a huge advantage to many even if it means traveling to Delhi from other cities. It is also an asset to my employees who have to travel to India frequently and I know for certain that my company is not the only one using this direct route to their advantage. We actually purchase a fixed number of seats through AI every six months at slightly lower rates.

    I fly on Biz, First and occasionally Economy – certainly haven’t come across a politician in First and Biz on the SFO route considering most of the time my wife and I are the only ones in First.

  12. The Air India business class seats ARE fully flat according to their website and skytrax. They actually look on par with Emirates 777 business class since they’re both 2-3-2.

  13. The price premiums that you see on published fares are one thing. The actual fares available through agencies and consolidators are a completely different matter … and trust me, there is little point in purchasing any ticket on AI, Y, J or F, other than through an off-line consolidator!

  14. @Lucky, you can lookup SFO traffic data. AI doing extremely well compared to others. Even AI premium cabins are almost full. ME3 loads are no where close. Chinese have the worst loads.

    AI 77L Y is a true ULH product. 3-3-3, 18 inch width, 34 pitch and high recline angle almost like premium economy.

    And passengers are paying premium over others. Of course travel agents who get more cut from others carriers and actively discourage people to fly AI are very disappointed with this development.

    They claim, interiors are so bad on AI planes they are unsafe, but same logic won’t apply to EK clunkers. AI mx is top notch. They also wish service reliability will be so poor, that is not true either.

  15. I guess it makes total sense to have a daily flight from SFO to DEL based on the huge number of people from India living in that area. However, as some already commented here I have many Indian friends that would rather connect somewhere else with another airline than flying Air India non-stop.

  16. “They claim, interiors are so bad on AI planes they are unsafe, but same logic won’t apply to EK clunkers”

    Except EK probably sends some of their better planes to SFO.

  17. @Julia

    My comment was about EK sending 13-19 year old clunkers to India, and they being perfectly safe even with crappy interior.

    BTW, EK doesn’t send their brand new B77W to USA either. Because new deliveries are licensed with lower MTOW and some don’t even have crew rest areas. Cost cutting measure.

  18. @Santastico

    Does it matter how your friends and family think about AI. All it matters is AI able to fill the plane and able to demand premium over others.

    BTW, AI made it very to simple to transit at DEL. It is a quick transfer in Delhi. For all major Indian cities, Immi/Customs happens at your final destination. India even made international transfers very simple.

  19. People in places like this tend to grossly overestimate the amount of research normal people do before booking flights.

    The average flyer will either get the cheapest direct or cheapest flight – not sit there analysing seat pitch, IFE quality etc. I’m always meeting people telling me how amazing their Emirates etc flight was because they had a free bar for example, completely oblivious to that being the norm for European and Asian long haul carriers.

  20. @Matt: Yes and also a Silicon Valley Express even for the lower costing non-H1B1 workers I hire 😉 Great asset – employees cannot discuss their salaries.

  21. Seatguru is wrong. They’re not “agnle-lie flat” seats.

    They’relie flat seats, but the section of the seat that’s under your calves has a slight 4 degree incline similar to the old First Class seats that Air France used to have in the mid aughts.

    I’d still fly QR or EY via their hubs, however, than fly AI. Any airline today that doesn’t offer a “dine when you want” option in J is a waste of time (except for SQ which is in a class by itself). Plus, AI’s meals look like Y on white linen.

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