- Analysis performed between 8th & 15th March, 2015. All info contained herein is based on what was available at that period.
- Sixth aircraft arriving by end March to open new routes in the Summer Schedule.
- Only 50% of Premium Economy’s 36 seats are worth occupying.
- Increased overhead volume per passenger.
- Average present aircraft utilisation 8:21 HRS.
- Targetted turnaround time is 40-45 minutes.
- RDG shortfall for CAT II, IIA & III capacities to be addressed by the introduction of GAU, IXB & Pune as new stations.
- Excellent personalised on board service in Business Class.
- Branding inconsistency at some customer touchpoints.
- Vistara’s focus is on the soft product, not the hard.
- With forward bookings, loads may increase.
- Peculiarities in fares and pricing: Economy costlier than Premium, at times, for the same flight.
- Very competitively priced, cheaper than LCC at times.
- 6th Aircraft in March, 7th in September, 8th in October, and 9th by end of 2015 CY.
- All BOC A320CEOs to be delivered by 2018.
- RDG backlog may be cleared in as little as 2 months.
- Airline average utilisation may touch 12hrs per aircraft (weekday) in/by May 2015.
- Patterns may touch upto 14 hours.
- Only 2 stations expected to be announced after Pune, until September 2015. One of the two will be Bangalore.
- Updated with comments from Vistara CCO Giam Ming, in response to this article.
Vistara, the 51-49 joint venture between the TATAs and Singapore International Airlines (SIA), commenced revenue flights on the 9th of January, 2015. 10th March 2015 marked its 60th day – or nearly two months – since start of operations.
In these two months, the airline has grown much. The airline flies five Airbus A320-232SL aircraft, and a sixth is expected to join the fleet by end of March, 2015. The airline presently flies to four destinations from its primary base at Delhi, and atleast two destinations will be added in April, 2015.
Vistara is the only airline in India to offer three classes on domestic narrow body services. The airline wishes to position itself as a full service carrier (FSC), while the absence of an in flight entertainment (IFE) – either by directly providing or supporting (through streaming or power) – perhaps makes it a FSC with a shortcoming, the extent of which is highly debatable.
The TATA-SIA partnership is understood to leverage TATA’s market footing and penetration in India, and SIA’s operational expertise.
- Breaking it up
There are two kinds of service airlines offer : the network service (routes and timing), and the passenger service (customer care, in-flight). An airline revolves around the network service, while the passenger service layer – which sits above the network layer – largely differentiate low cost and ‘full’ service carriers.
1.a. Fleet and Network
The aircraft selection and configuration, and the network reflects the market that an airline wishes to capture. The airline was intent on a narrow-body fleet, for its domestic operations, which make the Boeing 737NG and the Airbus A320 equally good contenders. However, it is believed that the A320’s availability was favourable to the airline, and by the time the lessor BOC Aviation was finalised, the decision on the engine – IAE V2527-A5 had already been made by the lessor. In favour of the startup airline, the Indian narrowbody market is dominated by Airbus A320 aircraft. For Vistara, an airline that is a result of two well established names, sourcing rated pilots and engineers isn’t an issue. It is however believed that the airline isn’t a paymaster.
Vistara’s fleet is under a maintenance support agreement with Airbus, known as the ‘Tailored Support Package’ (TSP), which is effected through Airworks India. The Flight Hour Services Tailored Support Package (FSH-TSP) is solution with many modules, which in its full scope allows Airbus to guarantee on-time performance (OTP) – covering all technical, logistics and maintenance delays.
A large part of these decisions, including FHS-TSP, are influenced by SIA, which brings to the table operational expertise. Silkair – the regional wing of SIA, operates narrowbodies (Airbus A320s (phasing out), and Boeing 737NGs) with a dual class configuration.
At the time of writing, Vistara has five Airbus A320-232SL aircraft in its fleet, with the following registrations (serial numbers): VT-TTB (6223), VT-TTC (6278), VT-TTD (6311), VT-TTE (6343), VT-TTF (6388). The sixth A320, VT-TTG (6513), first flew on 4th march 2015, and is expected to be delivered within two weeks from now (before 25th March 2015).
VT-TTE recently suffered damage to its front passenger door at Ahmedabad, from the aerobridge it was docked to. The aircraft flew out of India towards late February, for repairs, and is back in service.
The airline had planned to start operations in the October of 2014. However, the nearly 3 month delay resulted in the aircraft pile up from BOC, explaining the six aircraft fleet in two-and-a-half months.
All aircraft are fitted with a three class cabin, comprising Economy, Premium Economy, and Business, in a 96-36-16 seat split. The business class and the seat pitches in economy and premium economy result in just 148 seats out of a maximum of 180 that an Airbus A320 in a single class configuration can seat.
In economy, each row features six seats. Each seat is 18 inches wide, and the row to row seat pitch is a uniform 30 inches. Each of the seats sport vertically adjustable winged headrests, and each seat can recline upto 3.5 inches. Seats on the last row (Row number 27), offer no recline due to the partition wall behind.
The premium economy class seats are on rows 5 to 10, which include two rows of emergency exit rows, resulting in a non-uniform seat pitch across the class. the first four rows feature a 33 inch seat pitch, while the last two rows – 9 and 10 – emergency exit rows feature a 36 inch seat pitch. Rows 8 and 9 have no recline, while row 10 has a restricted recline. Only rows 5, 6 and 7 feature recline upto 4.5 inches. This means that only 50% of the class’ seats offer full recline. Rows 9 & 10 compensate for no / reduced recline through extra legroom, but row 8 is the least preferred in the class – due to the 33 inch seat pitch and no recline. Seats in premium economy are no different from those in economy, and the partition between classes is soft – through a curtain, not a partition wall.
Edit: Vistara Chief Commercial Officer Giam Ming commented on this after reading the article: “Your assertion about our PEY seating is incorrect.Only row 9 has no recline.Row 8 has limited recline due emergency exit door but row 10 has full recline.”
Business Class seats are found on rows 1 – 4, laid out as four abreast. The seats feature a 42 inch seat pitch, a 7 inch recline, and around 20 inches seat width. The seats also feature an extendable leg support with a spring loaded footrest.
None of the seats feature any in-flight entertainment options, USB charging ports, or power sockets (such as the Airbus KID 110V AC SkyPower in-seat power outlet for laptop computer and portable electronic devices).
Between the forward galley and the first row of seats is a stowage for coats, that doubles up as a partition wall.
Galleys have ovens to heat food, but rely on dry ice boxes for refrigeration.
Due to the reduced number of passengers, overhead luggage space per passenger is greater, by a negligible 3% per passenger in economy, and a relatively significant 10% in premium economy, compared to a single class A320.
Vistara presently operates to Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Goa, and Hyderabad from Delhi. From 2nd April the network will grow to include Guwahati and Bagdogra. The Flying Engineer estimates the addition of atleast two destinations in April – a Tier I and a Tier II city. While this piece was being written, the Tier II destination – Pune – was announced, raising the total cities in the network to eight. Services to Pune will commence on 9th April 2015.
Vistara presently flies 24 flights a day, with 5 aircraft, averaging to roughly 5 flights per aircraft. The average block time per flight across the network is 1:44hrs, and the total block time flown by all five aircraft on a weekday is 17:45hrs. Average aircraft utilisation is 8:21hrs. The earliest flight departs at 6:10hrs IST, and the last flight lands at 23:20hrs IST. Targeted turnaround time is 40 – 45 minutes. However, ground time in certain patterns can touch 3:40hrs, as shown below:
Average aircraft utilisation is low due to the airline receiving aircraft on schedule, but not having been able to start as planned. The airline had planned to start operations in the October of 2014, but start of operations was delayed by almost three months. However, this allows the airline a good degree of flexibility to deal with an aircraft on ground (AOG) situation.
Of the five patterns in effect in March 2015, one pattern starts at Mumbai, and ends at Delhi (Pattern 5), while another (Pattern 4) starts at Delhi and ends at Mumbai, for an overnight parking. The other three start and end at Delhi.
On the frequency front, lucrative business traveller dominated routes have atleast two frequencies, with Delhi-Mumbai topping the frequency chart with a five daily in each direction.
The airline started flying to the south on the 1st of March, 2015, when Hyderabad was added to the network. While The Flying Engineer had talked of Bangalore being the next Tier I city after Delhi and Mumbai, it is learnt that issues with slots at Bangalore, amongst other reasons, was responsible for Hyderabad being the next preferred Tier I destination.
Vistara has been granted a three month waiver by the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA) for complying with the mandatory route dispersal guidelines (RDG). RDGs require airlines to deploy capacity on routes designated as CAT II, IIA, and III routes, as a specified percentage of the capacity deployed on CAT I routes. Of the sectors in its present network, CAT I routes include Delhi – Mumbai vv, and Delhi- Hyderabad vv, while CAT III routes include Delhi – Goa vv, Delhi- Ahmedabad vv and Mumbai – Ahmedabad vv. The airline presently flies no CAT II routes, but Delhi- Guwahati and Bagdogra – Delhi will be the airline’s inauguration of such routes. Guwahati – Bagdogra will contribute to CATIIA routes. The recently announced Delhi-Pune route will add CAT III capacity. Below is the RDG calculation:
Starting April, the airline will be obliged to clear its backlog of CAT II, CAT III and CAT IIA routes that were not flown for the first three months of operation. The timing seems good, as Vistara may be able to capitalise on the holiday season to start ‘viable’ services on the CAT II/IIA ‘loss making routes’. The month of May traditionally witnesses the highest demand for domestic air travel.
When operations to Guwahati and Bagdogra start on 2nd April 2015, the airline will be able to start meeting its CAT II and CAT IIA obligations. The obligations are exceeded by 6% and 1%, respectively. However, since March 1st 2015, the airline has been suffering a 2% shortfall in its CAT III obligations, and a 100% shortfall in its CAT II and IIA obligations. With the recently announced Delhi-Pune sector, the CAT III obligations will be met and exceeded.
All RDG calculations consider the schedule from Monday – Friday, and direct airport – airport distances for the sake of simplicity. Actual obligation shortfalls may hence vary.
On the Delhi-Mumbai and Mumbai-Delhi sectors, the airline seems to have secured favourable slots in periods of high demand. Slots for the DEL-HYD vv seem to be ideal for business travellers who seek a day return with flights that land in and whisk the traveller out at the start and close of business hours . For Goa, the flight timings seem to fare well considering hotel check-in and check-out policies. DEL-AMD vv and BOM-AMD vv timings could perhaps be better. We are unable to comment on the attractiveness of the DEL-GAU-IXB-DEL timings.
Pune was announced during the course of writing this piece. The timings are good for passengers who have wrapped up a business day, but to support travellers who wish to arrive at the start of a business day, Vistara will have to, and may soon introduce a morning flight – more under Growth, Plans and Forecast.
1.b Passenger Service
The Flying Engineer was invited on Vistara’s inaugural flight from Hyderabad to Delhi. At Hyderabad airport, Vistara counters were manned by Air India-SATS staff, who were in their signature orange coat. This was perhaps a branding failure. The staff were very courteous, but the pre conceived notion of a possibly not-so-friendly Air India staff member serving you at the counter, and at the boarding gate may work against Vistara’s image.
The airline has dedicated counters for each of its three classes.
The welcome on board was warm, but not out of the ordinary. In business class, the service is very personalised, with the cabin attendant taking the time to offer and explain the menu. The menu changes every week, and the first set of menu across classes repeats after four weeks.
There are multiple rounds of service to one’s satisfaction, with presentation that is absolutely pleasing. The interesting part is the cabin crew take on a personality when it comes to dealing with the ordinary, but they immediately snap out of that absolute grace when confronted with an out of the ordinary question or situation. The difference in tone and behaviour is significant.
At the moment, in flight entertainment is absent, though Vistara is in talks with the DGCA in securing approvals to offer wireless entertainment options. Other ‘full service’ airlines do have IFE screens on board most of narrowbody aircraft, though these remain disabled on most or all domestic sectors.
Considering Vistara aims to appeal to the business or corporate traveller, power sockets would have been a good addition, either as a 5V USB or the 110V socket for laptops.
This approach will perhaps make positioning Vistara very difficult. The network focuses on mainline routes for now – mature routes with sufficient competition. The airline doesn’t stand differentiated on that ground. The in-flight is devoid of entertainment options, support (including power). This effectively allows other carriers to pitch against Vistara. Even the premium economy and the economy sections can be competed against.
Sanjiv Kapoor led SpiceJet has been laying significant emphasis on customer service and warmth – something the airline has been successful with. The first five rows of its Boeing airplanes, designated as SpiceMax rows and seats, feature a 35 inch seat pitch – 2 inches more than what premium economy on Vistara offers. All SpiceMax seats can recline to their designated maximum, unlike two rows of Vistara’s which line up with the emergency exit, and another row that is limited by the economy section right behind. The only flip side of SpiceMax is one inch lesser seat width, which is more a function of the Boeing 737’s limitations compared to the Airbus A320’s. Customers can pre-book meals of their choice, and enjoy hot meals. (At the time of this piece, SpiceJet had suspended the hot meal service to passengers).
On SpiceJet, those who pre-book or opt for meals on board are served the meal in a packaging similar to Vistara’s in premium economy, though not on a tray (difference in presentation). Vistara does offer its customers a lot more in terms of the spread, but should SpiceJet get into the same game, the gaps between the two will dissolve.
SpiceJet’s SpiceMax seats are not in a separate class. A passenger who books a promo ticket at very low prices can opt for the SpiceMax seat by paying the fee associated with the seat – INR 1,000.
Go Air, which reserves the first two rows for its ‘Go Business’, differentiates itself from the rest by ensuring the middle seat remains unoccupied. This allows a business traveller looking for a premium experience a good degree of privacy – he or she does not have to share his armrest with another passenger. However, Go’s pricing of its ‘ Business’ is significantly higher than Vistara’s premium economy.
How successful Vistara will be in selling premium economy to its target audience without many significant benefits that justify ‘premium’ over economy is to be seen.
Vistara’s decision of not going in for an IFE has its advantages. Jet Airways does not sell in flight entertainment as a product, on domestic sectors. As soon as it is sold as a product, a seat with a broken IFE cannot be assigned to a customer, as it amounts to a shortfall in promised and paid service. IFE also adds significant weight, which increases fuel burn. Costs associated with increased fuel burn, equipment, and loss of inventory (un-assignable seats due to an non-operational IFE) will impact the airline’s cost structure and erode simplicity.
While service overall is excellent, Vistara’s “Glass Half Full” approach to full service through focus on the soft product may expose it to a threat – the ability for competitors to quickly scale up to Vistara’s soft product standards.
Vistara’s Airbus A320s are fitted with 148 seats. Considering baggage allowances of 15kg, 20kg & 30kg in economy, premium economy and business, respectively; hand baggage allowances and typical average passenger weights, a Vistara A320 when operating with a 100% load factor will be lighter by 2,600kgs when compared to a single class 180 seat low cost airline operating with a 100% load factor. 2,600kgs corresponds to a saving of around 130kgs (or 3% of trip fuel) of fuel on a Delhi-Hyderabad sector.
In its first month of operations (January 2015), the airline flew with a load factor of 45%. Contributory factors to the low load factor are the coincidence of the launch with the onset of the lean season, and the small window between the airline opening for sales on 18th December 2014 and the start of operations on 9th January 2015 – a 22 day window. The airline had initially priced its tickets higher than the competition, only to later lower it to allow sales to pick up.
The month of February may have seen the airline flying with slightly better yet a low load factor of between 55% to 65%. Contributory factors include the inability of the airline to initially sell beyond February 15th, resulting in low forward bookings. Load factors April onward may see a rise, due to both forward bookings and the onset of the peak season.
The lower number of passengers and the lower (than competitors) load factors allow Vistara to sell a large amount of its cargo space to its cargo partner – Sovika Cargo, who also handles cargo for other airlines. According to Vistara Chief Commercial Officer Giam Ming, Vistara today carries the largest amount of cargo in narrowbodies on domestic routes, amongst scheduled Indian passenger carriers. Go Air used to fly in excess of 1,000kg of cargo per flight. Giam Ming stressed on the importance of cargo revenue, with the example of Singapore Airlines where reportedly cargo accounts for 20% of the airline’s revenue.
Lower weights also require lesser engine thrust for most takeoffs, stressing the engines lesser, boosting reliability, and reducing maintenance costs.
Every flight is operated by a crew of 7-8 : 2 flight crew and 5 cabin crew, which may at times rise to 6 cabin crew. Ideally, the cabin crew split between the cabins is 2 – 2 – 2(Business / Premium Economy / Economy). When operating with a 5-member strong cabin crew, the split, depending upon class – wise loads, is 1 -2- 2. The first batch of cabin crew were sent to Singapore for their training. According to the airline, all batches will be sent to Singapore for their training.
On the pricing front, Vistara has been very competitive. Its fares are usually not the highest, and if higher, the price difference between a low cost carrier such as IndiGo and the airline is less than a thousand rupees, or specifically – less than INR 500 on the Delhi – Hyderabad sector that we picked as a single case study. In 9 out of 14 cases, Vistara was cheaper than IndiGo on the sector, sometimes by as much as INR 7,292. Below is the table, all fares in INR:
A very interesting observation is the price difference between Premium Economy and Economy at Vistara. Premium economy can be higher than economy by just INR 289 to INR 3,168. In our study, 15th March, a Sunday (see the table, above, dash-boxed in red), showed an anomaly: Premium Economy was cheaper than Economy by INR 1,517. This defeats the ‘premium’ tag associated with the class. In effect, the message this conveys is that Premium Economy gives a passenger a better service than Economy for cheaper, defeating the value that Vistara may be trying to sell. The airline may need to tweak its revenue management / pricing model.
Edit: Vistara Chief Commercial Officer Giam Ming commented on this after reading the article: “It’s a snapshot of a new operator (Vistara), who has limited time to sell the flights against entrenched incumbents, who have been selling on the routes for years. The comparison is really not very meaningful.”
When listed on an online travel agency like MakeMyTrip, a passenger has no way to determine if the price listed corresponds to ‘Premium Economy’ or ‘Economy’. If this is mentioned, it may sway consumer choice in favour of Vistara, as a passenger is now made aware of a premium offering at an attractive fare.
Another interesting observation is Vistara resorting to what we observe as ‘panic’ selling. Fares for Vistara’s DEL-HYD morning flight for 13th March, when checked on the night of 12th March, stood at 6,578 for economy. At 4:30am on 13th March- almost 2 hours to departure, the fares had dropped to 5,481. Fares are one of the most reliable indicators of a flight’s load factors.
The airline has 19 fare levels, or ‘buckets’. The first 10 correspond to economy, the next five to premium economy, and the last, upper four to business class. We have however found a few fares (pre- tax, levies, & surcharges) that do not adhere with the published fare levels (example: pre-tax & levy airfare of 5,720), reflecting instead a price that falls between fare levels.
Business class airfares in our single route study are consistently at the lowest end of the airline’s fare buckets for the class. The pricing speaks.
Vistara’s airfares are very competitively priced, luring customers who may want to realise a much higher value for their money. While this is good for the customer, it may also signal a low preference for the airline, today, even in classes such as economy and premium economy.
As the airline’s network builds, and frequencies are added, things may change for the better, for Vistara, to allow it to command and demand better prices.
- Growth, Plans & Forecast
Of the six Tier I cities, Vistara presently operates to/from Delhi, Mumbai and Hyderabad. Delhi and Mumbai were natural choices – these two cities enjoy the largest passenger traffic, and the route between these two cities is the busiest Tier I route. While Bangalore – the third busiest city was expected to be next, fuel prices, willingness by GMR to welcome Vistara at Hyderabad, and issues with attractive slots at Bangalore swung the decision towards the Tier I city with lowest traffic – Hyderabad. Bangalore is the next logical destination, that may soon be announced. While Chennai may seem the next Tier I city to target after Bangalore, opening Kolkata before Chennai may make better network sense.
On the Tier II front, Ahmadabad, Goa and Guwahati are destinations. While writing this piece, Vistara announced Pune as a destination – something we had forecasted earlier. These four Tier II destinations witness the largest passenger traffic. Srinagar is a very good destination for the airline to start operations on, considering the onset of the summer. While at it, the airline may also fly to Jammu. Lucknow and Bhubaneshwar are two other attractive destinations.
Amongst Tier III cities, the airline’s only announced destination is Bagdogra – the 3rd largest in terms of passenger traffic. Considering Guwahati is a destination, Imphal and Agartala may be on the airline’s radar, for Tier III city expansion. These are good destinations, presently served exclusively by narrow bodies.
On the fleet expansion plans, Vistara will receive its sixth Airbus A320 before month end, to help start operations on the new sectors, including Bangalore, Pune, Guwahati, and Bagdogra.
In September 2015, Vistara will receive it’s 7th A320. The 8th will be delivered in October, and the 9th by the end of calendar year 2015. The remaining 11 A320 CEOs from BOC will be delivered by 2018. To support its fleet expansion plans, the airline is exploring options with other lessors. Vistara hopes to induct NEOs in 2017. Although the choice of engine to power the NEOs hasn’t been finalised, the Pratt & Whitney PW1100G will be a logical choice, considering engine maturity and the present engine choice. Further, the GTF has more room for growth in thrust ratings, unlike the LEAP.
It is this fleet expansion plan that will stifle Vistara’s network growth till September. Vistara’s network growth is also a function of it meeting its RDG commitments. Opening a Delhi-Bangalore route will allow the airline to still meet its RDG requirements, with excesses of 3%, 1% and 1% on the CAT II, IIA and III routes, respectively. This means that Vistara will not have to launch Srinagar and Jammu for the sake of CAT II & IIA capacity compliance.
In the first three months, Vistara has accumulated backlogs of approximately (reasons mentioned earlier) 13 million ASKM for CAT II routes, 1 million ASKM on CAT IIA routes, and 5.2 million on CAT III routes. With the DEL-GAU CAT II route and the GAU-IXB CAT IIA routes generating a little excess capacity (even with a CAT I capacity added by a single DEL-BLR vv), the airline can clear its CAT II, CAT IIA and CAT III backlogs in about 5 months, 2 months, and 6 months, respectively. Interestingly, the 7th aircraft will arrive only after 6 months of the 6th aircraft – a well planned move!
Our study (considering a limited set of factors) shows that one aircraft may be parked overnight at Bangalore, to operate an early morning Bangalore- Delhi. Since Vistara is intent on serving the business / corporate passenger, the airline may have to introduce another Delhi-Pune connectivity to complement the evening flight to Pune and the night return to Delhi. At the same time, the airline may need a double Delhi – Bangalore connection, without adding any more CAT I capacity. We feel that the addition of a DEL-PNQ-BLR & return sector will hit two birds with one stone : an additional Delhi-Bangalore connection and a Bangalore-Pune route. Both these routes will come under CAT III, perhaps allowing the airline to clear its CAT III backlog much earlier. Below is our proposed / forecasted pattern:
The airline may also offer a DEL-SXR connection, with which the CAT II obligation may be cleared faster while also catering to a lucrative route in summer, especially in May 2015. With the below proposed patterns / destinations / flights, the airline may clear its RDG backlog in just 2 months. After Bangalore, the airline may announce just one other destination, but not more, till the 7th aircraft arrives.
Alternatively, the airline may consider Delhi-Lucknow / Patna / Varanasi or Amristar in lieu of Srinagar, though Srinagar’s case is the strongest.
With our proposed / forecasted pattern, the airline’s average fleet utilisation will touch 12 hours per aircraft per weekday, with a maximum of 14 hours in the 6th pattern. The total number of flights may touch 37 every weekday.
With an interline agreement with Singapore Airlines, and a partnership between the two airlines’ frequent flyer programs, Singapore Airlines can feed off and feed into the startup’s network. Due to this partnership, load factors at the airline may witness a non-linear growth as Vistara’s network expands to more cities not directly served by SIA.
Vistara has come in to cater primarily to the business and corporate traveller, and leisure travellers who are willing to pay for a certain degree of minimum services and treatment. The airline’s true competitors are Jet and Air India, but considering the Singapore-airlines level of service that Vistara ensures, the airline stands one cut above the rest.
With the airline’s focus on the soft product rather than the hard, a threat it may face is from its competitors – both low cost and full service, who may ramp up their levels of service to match Vistara’s, at perhaps a more attractive price. The advantage Vistara has is the clean image it comes with, and no baggage of the past.
Vistara’s network focus seems to be on mature markets, the markets in which most of its target traveller base is found. Its interline arrangement and loyalty program agreement with Singapore Airlines will allow passengers to experience a seamless travel experience to destinations together covered by the Singapore Airlines and growing Vistara network.
Vistara is a nice airline that pampers you with class. However, clarifying the selling points of Premium Economy, adding power sockets, and ensuring a uniform brand representation at all touch points is much desired.