Article Written by Ravreet Singh
AMRITSAR – The state of Punjab in India, has a population of around more than 30 million people and in addition to this a large number of Punjabi diasporas spread across the globe and maintaining deep-rooted connections with their homeland.
The majority of them reside in North America, UK, and Australia. Even their next generations born outside of India love to travel for visiting their ancestral land more often than other ethnic groups.
Every year, millions even without having any friends or relatives in Punjab, still visit Amritsar, home to the holiest shrine Harmandir Sahib of the Sikh religion.
The Second Busiest Airport in India
Sri Guru Ram Das Jee International (SGRDJI) Airport, Amritsar (ATQ) is the second busiest international airport in Northern India after Delhi, serving the people of Punjab, its diaspora, and other neighboring states like Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh.
There always has been an immense demand by the diaspora residing in North America and the UK to have direct flights to Amritsar from London Heathrow (LHR) in the UK, Toronto, and Vancouver in Canada.
Despite a huge potential to become a major hub in the future, it does not have direct connectivity with major destinations like LHR. With yearly indirect traffic of more than 106,000 between London and Amritsar via other airports, we look at the potential of direct LHR-Amritsar flights, one of the most unserved routes to India.
High Demand Route
Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are left with the only option of traveling with one or more stops connectivity between London-Amritsar.
This demand for direct flights to London was partially met when the Indian national carrier Air India (AI) commenced 3x weekly direct flights to London Stansted Airport (STD) from Amritsar on October 31, 2019.
With majority of diaspora living in areas close to LHR, the Amritsar-Stansted flight still received a good response.
During the first quarter of 2020, the occupancy on these flights was more than 85% with 13,472 passengers despite the fact that the majority of the people stopped traveling at the start of the year due to fear of pandemic. In addition, 207 tonnes of cargo were also sent on these flights to London in Q1 2020.
More than 106,000 one-stop Traveling Passengers
According to the data published by Airline Network News and Analysis (anna aero), more than 106K people flew the LHR-Amritsar route from October 2018 to October 2019 with one-stop connectivity, half of them flying via Delhi and remaining via foreign countries via Doha, Ashgabat, or Tashkent on Qatar Airways (QR), Turkmenistan Airlines (T5) and Uzbekistan Airways (HY).
In the past, reports published by the website anna.aero also shows that AI’s top connection route via its Delhi hub was between LHR and Amritsar.
In addition, the demand for international travel to Europe including London is evident from the fact that the top connections of T5 on all its routes via its hub in Ashgabat also originated from Amritsar.
Most Searched Route Between India and Europe
Even at the CAPA India Aviation Summit 2019 in New Delhi in February, commercial director of Skyscanner Gavin Harris had revealed that “the most searched route between India and Europe with no direct service is Amritsar-London.”
There is also a big number of travelers to/from Punjab that either starts or ends the journey at Delhi and then travels home to Punjab either by road or takes separate domestic flight tickets to Amritsar. It has been published in different reports that Delhi airports get an estimated 40-45% International traffic from Punjab.
Every year, thousands of travelers also fly on the London-Dubai (DXB) route and then on direct flights operated by SpiceJet (SG) or Air India Express on the Dubai-Amritsar route.
They do this as the number one preference for the majority of the passengers is to reach Punjab direct and avoid the inconvenience of traveling via Delhi.
Highest Number of Repatriation Flights by the UK from Amritsar
The COVID-19 pandemic, which caused India to go into a complete lockdown with the suspension of all international flights since March 25, 2020, also helped Amritsar reveal its true potential for these major international destinations.
The British High Commission in India operated the highest number of repatriation flights from Amritsar to London, leaving behind all other metropolitan cities like Delhi and Mumbai.
British and Qatar Airways (QR) operated a total of 28 repatriation flights from Amritsar to LHR for the UK government, repatriating around 8,271 UK citizens from Amritsar.
During this time till 15 May 2020, the UK government repatriated 16,500 UK citizens in total from India.
With the fact that more than half of them were flown to UK from Punjab, also confirms that majority of International travellers flying to Delhi from UK and Canada are from Punjab.
Due to many repatriation flights to the UK and Canada, Sri Guru Ram Dass Jee International Airport, Amritsar was also the 3rd and 2nd busiest airport in India in terms of handling most international traffic in April and May 2020 leaving behind big airports in metropolitan cities in India including Mumbai, Bengaluru etc that handles millions of passengers every month.
A Look at Direct Flights from the Past
Amritsar was once directly connected with LHR. In 2006, Jet Airways (9W) was the first Indian carrier to operate direct flights between these two airports.
This thrice-weekly flight was operated by 9W state of the art Airbus A330-200 aircraft at that time.
The national carrier of India AI was also operating direct Amritsar-Birmingham-Toronto flights since 2005, providing convenient connectivity with Amritsar to the Punjabi Diaspora in the UK as well as Canada.
According to anna.aero, this AI flight was one of the most profitable and popular flight in the history of AI.
To save its slots at LHR, the airline changed the routing of its flight as Amritsar-London-Toronto in October 2008, which may be one of the reasons for 9W canceling its direct flight.
More than 80,000 passengers flew on direct London flights by 9W and AI for two consecutive FY’s from April 2007 to March 2009 based on India’s Director General Civil Aviation data.
During the FY 2009-10, data shows 65,046 passengers flew to London and 67,654 to Toronto on India’s national carrier AI Amritsar-London-Toronto flight.
In 2010, after the completion of the newly built international terminal at Delhi, AI, due to its new policy of developing Delhi and Mumbai as the main hubs for international flights, diverted this popular flight via Delhi, which as a result also caused Amritsar airport to loss majority of its international passengers and direct connectivity with London Heathrow and Toronto.
With all the current and historical numbers from more than a decade ago, the connection to LHR is a proven route. Thousands of high paying leisure or business travelers due to indirect flights with carriers like Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan are left with no option, other than flying direct from Delhi with other airlines.
Given the option of direct flights with full services carriers, they all will prefer paying more for direct flights from Amritsar. High fares on AI’s 3x weekly Amritsar-Birmingham direct fights as compared to the 3x weekly Delhi-Birmingham flights prove it. Also, the distance from Amritsar is less compared to Delhi for flights to the West.
A Number of Ideal Carriers for the Market
The traffic data from many sources proves that Amritsar has the potential to operate daily LHR flights and the route can be very lucrative for Indian carriers. A direct AI flight could be very successful and profitable for them.
As a Star Alliance member, AI can also connect passengers to the US and Canada on other partner flights operating from LHR like United Airlines (UA) and Air Canada (AC).
The other Indian carrier which can look at this route can be Vistara (UK). The airline has recently inducted 787-9 Dreamliners in its fleet and has recently started direct Delhi-LHR flights under the air bubble between India and the UK.
It is already trying to attract more traffic from Punjab by offering convenient connectivity via Delhi from Amritsar.
Vistara also has codeshares with many world-leading airlines including British Airways, United Airlines, and Lufthansa which are operating from LHR. This can provide convenient connectivity with Amritsar to Punjabi diaspora residing in the US, Canada, and Europe.
Vistara’s Amritsar-LHR could also be very successful and profitable for them as there is zero competition on this route as compared to Delhi.
SpiceJet, IndiGo Operations
Previously even with no widebody aircraft in its fleet, SpiceJet (SG) was also reported to have applied for LHR slots to operate direct flights to Amritsar.
The other Indian low-cost carrier, IndiGo (6E), with the new Airbus A321 aircraft in its fleet, can also operate direct flights with a refueling stop at Baku to either LHR or other airports in London.
Overall, the options are endless for this market. All it requires now is just commercial servicing.
Featured Image: Air India celebrating the inaugural London Stansted-Amritsar service some time ago. Photo Credit: anna.aero