Air India Express: only carrier on 38% of international routes; competition growing

Air India Express: only airline on 23 of 60 non-stop international routes; competition hotting up

Air India Express has a clear role to play within the Air India Group. It focuses on thinner international services from India, typically involving tier two cities. 

90% of Express’ seats are international, amounting to more than 5.5 million last year, OAG Schedule data shows.  This is up from 74%, and 3.6 million, in 2010.

Air India Express is almost entirely about the Middle East, with almost all of its international capacity deployed there. 

It also revolves around South India, with just under nine in ten of its international capacity involving 10 cities in this region, led by Kozhikode (Calicut). 

The reason is simple: most Indians in the Middle East come from the south.

52% of Express’ international seats are to/from the tropical state of Kerala alone, data shows, with Kannur’s new airport joining Express’ network in December 2018.

Air India Express’ international route map last year. Source: OAG Mapper.

Its network is based on seven countries

The carrier’s international network focuses on seven countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, and the UAE. 

Bangladesh (Dhaka) was cut in 2017, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur) in 2017, Sri Lanka (Colombo) in 2014, and Thailand (Bangkok) in 2010.

The UAE alone accounted for 3.4 million of its 5.5 million international seats last year across five airports: Abu Dhabi, Al Ain, Dubai, Sharjah, and Ras Al Khaimah.

Dubai had more than one-quarter of the LCC’s total, making the carrier’s #1 international destination followed by Sharjah.

Internationally does it: Express vs. Air India

Looking at the seven countries served by Air India Express and adding in Air India’s capacity to them too, as shown below, the low-cost subsidiary had a 59% share of Group seats last year.

This was its highest-ever figure. It was up from 46% in 2015 as Air India added barely more than 250,000 seats to these countries between 2015-2019 against over 2.5 million for its smaller unit.

But that’s not entirely fair. 

Since 2010, Air India’s own capacity to the Middle East and Singapore has grown by a respectable 60% against Express’ 83%. On a CAGR basis, they grew by 4.8% vs. 6.3% respectively.

All seven countries are served by Air India, with the airline mainly focusing on tier 1 cities to them. 

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Saudi king for Air India; Qatar for Air India Express

At 77%, Air India’s capacity to Saudi Arabia far exceeds that of its Express subsidiary. 

Over 500,000 of its nearly 900,000 Saudi seats were by widebodies last year, almost equally by its 423-seat B747-400s and 342-seat B777-300ERs. 

Jeddah – Mumbai was top, although Jeddah – Kochi led by non-stop capacity.

In contrast, Express is especially dominant to Qatar (98%), Bahrain (78%), and the UAE (68%).

Qatar is interesting.  Air India began Doha late last year, with Mumbai restarting from this coming October on a three-weekly basis, according to its website. Express’ very high Qatar dominance will therefore reduce.

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Air India Express’ 60 international routes; good dominance overall

Air India Express had 60 international routes last year, OAG data shows, with an average of 1.5 competitors per route.

The carrier was the sole operator on 23 of these 60 routes.  These include the only international route from Surat with any airline: Sharjah.  Surat joined Express’ network last year.

They also include a strong network of seven routes without direct competition from the Karnataka coastal city of Mangaluru, such as Abu Dhabi, Bahrain, Dammam, Doha, and Muscat. These are still only served by the LCC.

A further 12 routes had one competitor, funnily enough led by Mangaluru – Dubai in terms of seat capacity. Express was – and remains – the market leader on this airport-pair against SpiceJet.

At the other end of the scale, seven routes had between four and eight airlines – excluding Air India Express.  

With a big focus on the LCC’s #1 international airport, Dubai, these major routes last year were:

  • Mumbai – Dubai
  • Bangaluru – Singapore
  • Chennai – Singapore
  • Kochi – Dubai
  • Kozhikode – Dubai
  • Delhi – Abu Dhabi

Not surprisingly, the carrier was only #1 Kozhikode – Dubai (#1), although across all 60 routes it was typically in a strong position overall.

More competition coming

The competitive situation will probably only increase for the airline, given India’s LCCs are focusing more and more on international operations. 

Last year, Express competed directly with other Indian carriers on 27 different routes, or 70% of its routes with direct competition. (It also competes strongly with foreign airlines, but that’s not considered here.)

This 27 has not changed much in recent years from the end of Jet Airways, which was historically Express’ number-one competitor.  That title has now shifted to IndiGo. (Separately, every AirAsia India route competes with IndiGo.)

Last year, IndiGo competed directly with Air India Express 22 of its 37 routes with direct competition, followed by SpiceJet and Air India with eight.

Air India Express should expect a more competitive scene post-coronavirus.

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