Why Delta wants to stop SpiceJet from entering US

SpiceJet, however, said that while it was 'empathetic' to Delta’s frustration, the US airline's efforts were 'misdirected'

Why Delta wants to stop SpiceJet from entering US
Delta Airlines of US and SpiceJet of India have gone head-to-head. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/redlegsfan21 and Unsplash

American legacy carrier Delta Airlines is trying its utmost to stop Indian budget carrier SpiceJet from expanding to the US. The reason: the Indian civil aviation authorities not yet approving Delta's pending requests on codesharing with its partner airlines on flights to India. 

The US airline has interpreted this as "lack of reciprocity" by the Indian government and has petitioned the US Department of Transportation (DOT) to hold back exemption authority and foreign air carrier permit to SpiceJet till the codesharing issue is favourably dealt with by the Indian authorities, according to reports in CH-Aviation and Simpleflying. 

"Delta objects on the basis of a lack of reciprocity afforded by the Government of India and urges the Department to delay granting approval of the requested authority until such time as the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation and the Directorate General of Civil Aviation approves certain pending codesharing requests by Delta, consistent with the Open Skies US-India Air Transportation Agreement," the American carrier said.  

A SpiceJet Boeing 737-800 at Kempegowda Airport in Bangalore. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Venkat Mangudi

Delta has alleged that the Indian government has prevented it from codesharing on Air-France-KLM services to India since July 2020. While in November, codesharing was authorised on flights operated by Air France "after significant engagement by Delta and the Department", Delta is still not allowed to codeshare on KLM flights.

The Air India website defines codeshare flights as those which are marketed by one carrier and operated by another. This a result of agreements between airlines to sell seats on each other's flights. This provides passengers with a wider choice of destinations. The ticket would be booked on the flight number of the airline that the passenger had booked the travel with, but the flight would be operated by another carrier.

Also read: Britain quarantined! India bans UK flights with new coronavirus strain 'out of control'

SpiceJet, however, said that while it was "empathetic to Delta’s stated frustration", the US airline's efforts of using SpiceJet's application to address its "unrelated" concerns were "misdirected", CH-Aviation reported. SpiceJet pointed out that Delta's problems arose from codesharing, and not necessarily its own traffic rights in India. Delta had launched a direct flight from New York JFK to Mumbai in December 2019. 

India's national carrier Air India had run into trouble with the US DOT in June. In an order dated June 22, 2020, the US DOT restricted Air India's Vande Bharat Mission (VBM) flights alleging "discriminatory and restrictive" practices by India with respect to the operating rights of US carriers to and from India, and therefore, a violation of the US-India Air Transport Agreement. 

Delta Airlines has approached the US DOT against SpiceJet. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/formulanone

The US DOT notified Air India that the airline would be needed to obtain prior approval from the department for operating Third and/or Fourth Freedom charter flights to and from the US so that it can exercise close scrutiny on a case-by-case basis of Air India's passenger charter operations. 

The department alleged that Air India's so-called evacuation charters had gone beyond true evacuations and involved sales to any member of the general public able to enter the US while pointing out the inaction of the Indian ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) regarding Delta's request to operate repatriation charters similar to those undertaken by Air India. 

The US DOT also pointed out that with 59 flights advertised between June 10 and July 3, Air India had planned to operate charters at 53% of what it did earlier as part of scheduled services. The department suspected that Air India was trying to use these charters to circumvent the ban on scheduled air services imposed by the Indian government in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Also read: Boeing's killer B737 Max ungrounded, but Spicejet need not celebrate yet

Following this tough stance by the US DOT, the Indian government came up with the air bubble plan. Air bubbles or transport bubbles are temporary agreements between two countries aimed at resuming commercial passenger services when regular international flights stand suspended due to Covid-19. These arrangements are reciprocal in nature, which means that the airlines of the countries entering into an agreement enjoy similar benefits.

In July, SpiceJet was designated as a scheduled Indian carrier to operate flights to the US. It made SpiceJet the only Indian carrier apart from Air India that could fly to the US under the air bubble programme.

A SpiceJet plane that was earlier operated by Jet Airways at Hong Kong. Image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/Dltl2010

A filing with the US DOT indicated that the Indian low-cost carrier had sought permission to operate passenger and cargo flights from Delhi to New York's John F Kennedy International Airport using single-aisle, narrow-body Boeing 737 planes. The application to the US DOT was related to repatriation and Covid-related PPE flights, not scheduled passenger operations per se. 

SpiceJet had requested "expedited processing" of its application by the US DOT to allow it to start the proposed services as soon as possible, Simpleflying reported. 

Also read: How India's air bubbles calmed US fury, supplemented Vande Bharat

However, the B737 cannot fly non-stop from India to the US. A note in SpiceJet's filing with the US DOT is significant in this regard. It says that subject to appropriate authorisations, the carrier may start charter operations through a wet lease arrangement and move to its own fleet subsequently. 

Under wet leases, the lessor airline or charter company provides its planes, crew, insurance and/or maintenance services to another airline over the short-term. This is done typically when the leasing airline is in need of additional capacity or if its planes are grounded.   

In August, SpiceJet operated its first long-haul international wide-body flight, using a wet-leased Airbus A330Neo from the Portuguese charter airline HiFly. That flight helped to repatriate 270 Indians from Amsterdam to Bangalore and Hyderabad. Later that month, SpiceJet also flew from Delhi to the Canadian city of Toronto, carrying 352 passengers, Simpleflying reported. 

"This A330-900 can do India-US non-stop. We plan to utilise it initially for charters to wherever the demand is for,” The Times of India quoted a SpiceJet official as saying. SpiceJet had also entered into a wet-lease agreement with Oman Air, and the latter would supply the Indian carrier at the most three A330s to operate flights to the UK, Simpleflying reported. 

An Airbus A330Neo of HiFly. This aircraft was wet-leased by SpiceJet for recent long-haul operations. Image courtesy: HiFly

According to the HiFly website, the A330Neo seats 371 passengers (18 business class seats with flat beds and 353 standard economy seats). Airbus says the A330-900Neo has a range of 13,334 km. This aircraft is powered by the highly efficient new-generation Rolls-Royce Trent 7000 engines. The new and optimised wing with sharklets significantly improves the plane's performance.

SpiceJet's tweet after its first long-haul international wide-body flight. Source: Twitter/@flyspicejet

Indeed, SpiceJet also received permission to fly to the UK under the air bubble arrangement and pocketed coveted slots at the London-Heathrow Airport despite not owning any wide-body planes. It had planned to start flights to London from Delhi and Mumbai from December 4, but the UK lockdown, the new coronavirus strain in the UK and now the Indian government banning UK flights have stymied its plans. 

Also read: Vistara announces exciting news for Mumbai-London passengers

SpiceJet had been a largely domestic operator, with some international flights to the Middle East and other destinations in Asia. However, it has been eyeing the long-haul market for some time and looking to invest in the A330. This was despite SpiceJet's financial troubles. The carrier reported a net loss of Rs 105.6 crore in the quarter ended September which worsened its negative worth to Rs 2,286.6 crore, according to The Hindu. 

SpiceJet Chairman and Managing Director Ajay Singh said that the London service was a "huge milestone" given that it is "one of the busiest long-haul destinations from India", according to a FlightGlobal report. 

With domestic air travel hurt by the travel ban that ran from March 25 to May 24 in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, reduced capacity even after the sector was reopened and continued suspension of scheduled commercial international air travel since March 23, long-haul international travel under the air bubble arrangement and VBM has become attractive for SpiceJet. There is an urge to cash in on the pent up demand in these sectors.

SpiceJet may also be looking to fill the vacuum created by the grounded Jet Airways and give passengers another option apart from the overburdened Air India on long-haul routes. Moreover, considering the pandemic, people are also expected to prefer travelling non-stop from India to even long-haul destinations like those in Europe and North America rather than doing stopovers at the hubs in the Middle East or Southeast Asia.

(Cover image courtesy: Wikimedia Commons/redlegsfan21 and Unsplash)