Emirates and the India Problem

two airplanes flying in the sky

With the untimely demise of Jet Airways, there has been a flurry of activity in Indian aviation. While the revival of Jet Airways appears difficult, its competitors are leaving no stone unturned. They are furiously taking multiple steps to shore up their position. This includes

  • Leasing aircraft that once belonged to Jet Airways
  • Launching new international routes especially to Middle East and South East Asia
  • Grabbing prime time slots in key airports of India

Unfortunately, Emirates – one of the largest international airlines out of India – has not been part of this hectic activity. Not because it does not want to, but because it cannot. In this post, I will explain why. And it leaves Emirates very disappointed.

Indian Regulations Leave no Room for Emirates to Expand

India follows a reciprocal arrangement with international carriers. On a case-to-case basis, Government of India negotiates a treaty with a foreign country and sets a maximum limit on the ‘seats per week’. This governs the maximum number of flight foreign airline(s) can operate into India.

The number agreed between UAE and India is approximately 130,000. There are 4 airlines to share this bounty – Emirates, Etihad, flydubai and Air Arabia. As you can see from the table below, there is literally no room for expansion.

Destinations Emirates flydubai Etihad Air Arabia Total
Ahmedabad 9x weekly 2x weekly 12x weekly 7x weekly 30x weekly
Bengaluru 20x weekly 14x weekly 7x weekly 41x weekly
Chennai 21x weekly 3x weekly 14x weekly 7x weekly 45x weekly
Delhi 28x weekly 5x weekly 21x weekly 14x weekly 68x weekly
Goa 7x weekly 7x weekly
Hyderabad 21x weekly 4x weekly 14x weekly 7x weekly 46x weekly
Jaipur 7x weekly 7x weekly
Kochi 14x weekly 4x weekly 21x weekly 14x weekly 53x weekly
Kolkata 11x weekly 7x weekly 18x weekly
Mumbai 35x weekly 5x weekly 28x weekly 14x weekly 82x weekly
Thiruvanthapuram 11x weekly 7x weekly 14x weekly 32x weekly
Kozhikode 3x weekly 14x weekly 7x weekly 24x weekly
Total Flights 170x weekly 26x weekly 152x weekly 105x weekly 453x weekly
Total Seats 73100 5200 33440 17010 128750

In other words, the UAE-India market is saturated for international carriers.

Why is the Indian Market so Important for Emirates

India is one of the largest, most under-penetrated and fastest growing aviation markets in the world. This is something you know already.

However, the more interesting aspect is the severe lack of direct flights options when travelling from India. Air India is the only full service Indian carrier which flies internationally. Indigo has been expanding its international footprint but cannot travel beyond Middle East and South East Asia for logistic reasons.

Air India travels to quite a few destinations internationally. There are two issues though. First, I have seen that people either love or hate Air India. Many from the latter category claim that they would never fly Air India either because of a bad experience previously or concerns over aircraft maintenance.

Second, and more importantly, most of the international operations of Air India are from its hub in Delhi. Now, India is a pretty big country. You cannot take a 2-3 hour train from another city to Delhi. You would have to fly to Delhi.

For example, if you are travelling from Mumbai to Rome, this is how Air India and Emirates compare

a screenshot of a phone

The total journey is shorter if you fly Emirates (11h 45m) vs if you fly Air India (12h 35m). Do you understand where I am getting to? All things remaining same, Mumbai-Dubai-Rome makes more sense than Mumbai-Delhi-Rome. The same is true for other large India cities like Bangalore, Chennai, Kolkata etc.

To rephrase this, India is the holy grail for Emirates. Not just for traffic into Dubai, but also all over the world. Till Jet Airways remains bankrupt and Indigo does not fly longer routes, Emirates will likely remain the leader in international traffic out of India.

Tim Clarke on India

Let us revisit the previous point on saturation. With the demise of Jet Airways, Emirates clearly saw an opportunity. This included increasing frequencies in cities where it flies and also to add more cities in India. There are several Tier II and Tier III cities in India which can support international traffic and have not been served yet.

However, till the cap of ~130,000 seats remain, there is nothing that can be done. UAE government is cognizant of this. There are high-level talks going on with the Government of India to increase the aforementioned cap.

As far as Emirates is concerned, its President, Tim Clarke said this in an interview.

“The bilateral (air traffic) rights between India and Dubai is the biggest single problem. Now, the elections are over and the Modi government is back in power. I am hoping that the talks would (between India and Dubai) reopen. The biggest beneficiaries of the increased capacity (foreign flying rights) have been the Indian carriers. Now, what is stopping them from saying that India could have some more. I don’t know. It does not make any sense to me. Lot of things do not make sense there and that is where we are.”


  1. It’s easy for Tim Clark to blame the cap and claim that his hands are tied until the govt talks raise it. The cap might be the “biggest issue” but it by no means is the only issue.

    The elephant in the room is emirates fleet, which consists solely of wide body and super jumbos which is restricting emirates. The seat density for all emirates flights comes to 430 seats per flight, AVERAGE, where as the other 3 are 200 and under as it should be for 2hr 30 min short haul flight.

    If they code share with fly dubai, they could easily double the number of flights and branch out to other cities.

    1. Excellent points Parag. I think you might see Emirates go the narrow body route in the next five years. Btw, it already has a codeshare in place with flydubai.

  2. There were allegations of payoffs involved when the last capacity increase was undertaken. This government will go to lengths to keep such allegations off it. So fat chance of any increase in seat capacity.

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