Flying to the rescue: can India’s Vistara boss untangle red tape?

An Indian autumn is one of the great joys of travel. I have visited the vast, diverse, friendly and beautiful nation on several occasions in October and November – from the 1995 total eclipse in the north of the country to more recent sojourns in Goa and Kerala.

This autumn, however, the Indian government seems to be doing everything it can to deter tourists from the UK. Before the coronavirus pandemic, the vast majority of British visitors to India entered India with an eVisa – a relatively simple online system. The option was suspended during the Covid crisis and has now been restored for nationals of the vast majority of nations. However, the UK, previously one of the key tourist markets for India, is excluded.

The only alternative is to apply for a full Indian visa, which requires an interview. But the waiting time runs into months.

The Indian High Commission refused to respond to my statements on the matter. But Vinod Kannan will, I hope, be more successful. He is the CEO of Vistara, the last airline to compete with the UK and India. He told me: “We will urge them to make sure that the journey is made easier.

“That’s the message that we’re always asking the government and the authorities … to look at how we can remove these barriers or reduce them sufficiently so that everyone can travel.”

When easy access is finally possible once again, perhaps through Mr. Kannan’s good services, I will have plenty of choice between London Heathrow and Delhi.

The collapse of Jet Airways in 2019 invited Vistara to expand into long-haul markets. With a tight schedule, its Boeing 787 Dreamliners began being delivered in February 2020 – just as borders began to close as the Covid crisis took hold.

Vistara started flying between the two capitals during the coronavirus pandemic and the eVisa hardly helps. However, the boss says London-Delhi flights have achieved impressive loads. “Despite everything we see around us, our flights are going well.”

In part this is due to a stronger preference for direct flights. The willingness of passengers to change planes has decreased. While Emirates and Qatar Airways can offer dozens of connections between UK and Indian cities through their hubs, removing a stop in the Gulf reduces complexity as well as time.

On a typical day, there are at least seven direct departures from Heathrow to Delhi, starting at 10.05am. Air India, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic offer two flights each. Vistara has only one, UK18, scheduled to depart on 22.05.

Timetable analyst Sean Moulton says: “The Indian middle class is growing every year and so both the number of passengers willing to travel and the price they are willing to pay is growing every year, as is the product on board.”

Mr Moulton offers some advice: “For direct flights, Manchester remains unserved by India. It was a key market for Jet Airways in both Mumbai and Delhi.

“If Vistara wants to develop its long-haul offering, serving large and fairly high-performance markets would give them a foothold and allow them to compete with the Gulf carriers in the process.”

But for now, why choose Vistara at Heathrow-Delhi? Because, says Mr Kannan, it is “the best airline in India … we have extremely good products and services”. I haven’t had a chance to try the carrier yet, but its origins – a joint venture between Singapore Airlines and the giant Indian conglomerate, Tata – are promising.

I just hope I get a chance to try it sooner rather than later.

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