When Air Canada launches non-stop service between Toronto and New Delhi in November, it will mark the carrier's return to the route after a 10-year absence.
The re-emergence of the Toronto-New Delhi route shows Air Canada's confidence that economic growth in India will continue and also reflects the greater role that Toronto's Pearson International Airport now plays in serving as a major global hub in attracting connecting passengers from the United States.
Air Canada halted non-stop flights on the Toronto-New Delhi route in 2005 because the service became a poor financial performer in the carrier's international network. In 2006-07, passengers had a stopover in Zurich.
Then Air Canada withdrew outright in May, 2007, from Zurich-New Delhi service. Since then, travellers needing to get to India on an Air Canada ticket from Toronto have needed to transfer in Europe to a Star Alliance partner. Despite lobbying from the Canada-India Business Council in 2007 to restore non-stop service, Canada's largest airline insisted that the money-losing India flights didn't make economic sense due in part to the limitations of the 284-seat Airbus A340 and the 211-seat Boeing 767.
But with orders on the verge of being filled for the new Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Air Canada went back to the drawing board and decided that a fresh version of the aircraft tipped the scales in favour of reintroducing non-stop flights to and from India.
"The airplane is perfectly suited in terms of size, in terms of payload. That was the clincher," Marcel Forget, Air Canada's vice-president of network planning, said in an interview on the eve of this week's visit to Canada by India's new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. "The economics of the airplane are much better than previous generation wide-bodies used on that route."
While previous cabin configurations have featured business and economy class, the Dreamliner will have a three-class cabin. In particular, the Boeing 787-9 version will have 298 seats – 30 international executive lie-flat seats, 21 premium economy seats and 247 spots in economy. The seats at the front of the plane are important because they represent much-needed premium revenue to make flights profitable.
In the past, Air Canada found it challenging to attract customers to business class on flights to and from India. But India's improving economy is expected to translate into more executives on flights starting in November, adding to the mix of visiting friends and relatives.
The Dreamliner also has an impressive cargo capacity. That clears the way for flying imported goods from India to Canada such as clothing, pharmaceuticals, fresh produce and Indian sweets, said Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah. Going the other direction to India, Air Canada expects to carry pharmaceuticals and aerospace shipments from Quebec; machinery and automotive tools from Ontario; and oil field and mining equipment from Alberta.
Four months after Air Canada's withdrawal in 2007, Jet Airways (India) Ltd. launched service between Toronto and New Delhi, with a stop in Brussels. Other foreign carriers such as Emirates and Etihad Airways, through their hubs in United Arab Emirates, also have been pursuing connecting traffic to serve India.
Air France attracts customers to India from Toronto, Montreal and even Vancouver – underscoring the importance of connecting traffic globally. On Air France's recently introduced Vancouver-Paris route, some passengers will transfer in Paris to India, said Patrick Alexandre, executive vice-president at Air France-KLM.
Air traffic between North America and India has been on the rise during the past decade, over Atlantic and Pacific routes.
Air Canada is well-positioned because its hub at Pearson gives it access to U.S. passengers originating from cities such as Los Angeles, Boston and Dallas, Mr. Forget said.
In the Toronto market, Air Canada will have the non-stop edge starting in November with four flights a week in each direction. "For us, we believe our product will be superior, given the non-stop nature of the flight," he said.
Air Canada, which went through a painful restructuring process in 2003-04 while under bankruptcy protection, has become stronger financially over the past couple of years. The healthier outlook has given the company the ability to expand internationally, and India is a prominent market that needed renewed attention. "The strategic direction of Air Canada put India at the forefront of our thinking," Mr. Forget said.