Flying domestically in India may come with a lot of options in terms of airlines, but the flights are mainly limited to two aircraft types – the Airbus A320 and Boeing 737. Both narrowbodies have proven to be extremely reliable and work perfectly well for short domestic hops. But if you’re booked on Air India on a major domestic route, there’s always a slight chance of ending up on its flagship 787 Dreamliner aircraft.
Big plane on small routes
While India enjoys a robust domestic market, most flights within the country last for two hours or less. As such, narrowbody aircraft such as the A320 and B737 fit the bill perfectly for almost all major players. Air India itself relies on the A320 family of aircraft to serve its domestic market. But for some time now, AI has been deploying its Dreamliners on major trunk routes within the country.
Widebodies flying between major cities in India isn’t something new and reasons for this predate the pandemic.
While sometimes these flights are a by-product of positioning an aircraft in a particular city for its eventual trip abroad, over the years, some Indian domestic routes have seen consistent widebody traffic. Air India got its toes wet initially by add-on flights. For example, its London-Delhi flight was often extended to Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Chennai, but later these routes got their own Dreamliner flights.
The trend gained momentum particularly when former Jet Airways started deploying its A330 airplanes on busy routes such as Delhi-Mumbai. Air India, with its brand-new Dreamliner fleet, saw merit in the idea and followed suit. But what was the reasoning behind it?
Are these flights profitable?
Surely, both AI and Jet must have seen some economic logic in deploying twin-aisle jets domestically! One big reason for this was slot constraints at major airports. As newer LCCs started crowding Indian skies and airports, Air India (and Jet Airways back in the day) saw the advantage of bigger planes carrying more passengers at peak hours. An Airbus A320/Boeing 737 can fly about 150 passengers. AI’s Dreamliner can carry more than 250 in a two-class configuration.
Morning and evening peak hours in India usually last from 6 am to 9 am and 4 pm to 7 pm, respectively. A quick scan of the Air India website confirms that it operates almost all of its domestic Dreamliner flights during those strategic hours.
Two of AI’s 787 flights From Delhi to Kolkata leave at peak hours. Flight AI 401 has a morning departure at 6:50 am and AI 764 leaves at 4:55 pm in the evening. Similarly, AI 803 between Delhi and Bengaluru leaves at 6:10 am, and AI 544 to Hyderabad departs at 5:15 pm.
Interestingly, there are no Dreamliners flying between Delhi and Mumbai these days, but that has been compensated by one of AI’s 777s which departs daily from Delhi as flight AI868 at 6 pm.
Another reason for these 787 flights is maintaining market share by offering a better product. Seats in bigger airplanes such as the Dreamliner come with more legroom and are generally more comfortable than those in a smaller A320. The difference is even more pronounced in the business class section as the 787s are designed for longer flights.
With the Dreamliners, Air India had hoped to turn around its dwindling fortunes. Indeed, passenger reaction to the widebodies for domestic flights was quite good when the 787 was somewhat of a novelty. A 2015 Hindustan Times Report quotes an AI official as saying,
“On an average, flights are 85% full. More importantly, the business class is mostly sold out and hence the yields are higher … This is the reason why we are thinking of deploying two 787s exclusively on domestic routes.”
Many, however, are not fully convinced about the economic advantages of such flights. Aviation experts believe that for such flights to be profitable, airlines usually have to maintain their operations quite efficiently – something Air India is not quite known for.
Bigger planes require longer boarding and deplaning time and that also translates into a longer waiting time for passengers at the baggage carousel. Then, there’s also more fuel consumption on the ground. Airlines also need to factor in the maintenance costs, which are typically higher for larger airplanes.
Devesh Agarwal, a Bengaluru-based aviation expert told Business Standard in 2016 that AI’s decision to use its Dreamliners domestically was also to do with the shortage of narrowbodies. Air India has struggled to find funds to maintain its narrowbody fleet over the years could have needed the 787s to fill the gap.
One has to wait and see whether such flights will continue to operate under the Tatas, too.
Have you ever traveled Air India’s Dreamliner on domestic routes in India? Do share your experience below.