It appears that the nascent alliance between United and Emirates is running into some early trouble thanks to protectionist tendencies in India. The country has denied the airlines the right to codeshare on flights to and from India. That can’t be welcome news, but it won’t derail this train either.
When United and Emirates decided to partner, India was without question going to be an important part of the deal. Just think about geography here. From the US, connections via Dubai add value when going within the Middle East, to Africa, to South Asia, and from the east coast to Southeast Asia. Though all of this connectivity creates value in the United network, it’s India that’s the real prize.
Just take a look at 2019 numbers showing both passengers and nonstop seats via Cirium to really get a sense of what India means here.
2019 Daily Passengers and Nonstop Seats from the US
India is an enormous market and it has comparatively little service to the US. This, keep in mind, was in 2019. In 2023, service is actually a little higher thanks to American launching flights from JFK and Air India continuing to add capacity. But nonstop service continues to be hampered by the inability for US carriers to overfly Russia, something that won’t change anytime soon. It’s also just an incredibly long and expensive flight to operate.
Most of the US service today goes to Mumbai and Delhi while there is also some flying to Bangalore. Hyderabad briefly had service but that failed. This only scratches the surface of the US-India market, and connectivity is hugely important.
It’s no surprise that of the 27 routes United was planning to codeshare on beyond Dubai, 8 of them were to India.
Emirates has an enormous presence in India today. Here is the current route map:
Let’s see. How can I best explain the size of this market…
- There are more than three times as many seats between Dubai and India as there are between the entire US and India.
- There are more seats this July from Dubai to India then there are seats departing from Cleveland to anywhere.
- There are 43 percent more seats this July between Dubai and India than there are between all of Europe and India.
- More than 15 percent of all international departing seats from India are heading to Dubai.
I think you get the point.
Incredibly, despite these huge numbers, the market is actually constrained. Though the US and India have an open skies agreement, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and India have a bilateral agreement that is more restrictive and limits the amount of service to 66,000 weekly seats for each country’s airlines. The UAE requested an additional 50,000 seats earlier this year — because Emirates and flyDubai have hit the cap — but India shot that down.
India is hesitant to make changes, because it wants to protect its own airlines from competition. It’s a time-honored tradition. India’s airlines have hit the cap as well with IndiGo having nearly 30 percent followed by Air India, Air India Express, and SpiceJet each with around 22 percent. But for those airlines, Dubai is the destination. For Emirates, Dubai is also the hub that enables increased connectivity from India to the entire world.
That kind of competition makes it tougher for Indian airlines. Right now, Tata is focusing on consolidating Air India with Vistara and Air India Express with AirAsia India, so it’s busy. I can only assume that the Indian government is more than happy to put its proverbial thumb on the scale to help Indian airlines get a leg up, especially during this time of transition.
While the big fight is about actual service between Dubai and India, United’s codeshare on Emirates is a casualty of this. It is something that India can deny under the current bilateral, and the country has done just that. Forget that it doesn’t add a single seat. It would just make it easier for United to sell tickets to India from throughout the US. Now that won’t happen, and Air India must be thrilled.
This, of course, doesn’t stop United from publishing interline fares that include travel on Emirates. It already does that today, having amended its fare rules previously to allow travel on Emirates beyond Dubai into India. But there’s a reason airlines continue to push for codesharing. Codesharing sells more tickets… or the airlines wouldn’t bother.
This is a setback for the alliance, but it certainly isn’t going to change the airlines’ plans. At least, I assume it won’t. I did ask United for comment but the airline did not respond. Presumably, they will continue to work together and funnel traffic into India. If there’s a change in the bilateral, maybe tighter cooperation will be permitted. But for now, it’s just a matter of tapping into the US-India market the only way they can.