India Opts for Protectionism in Denying United/Emirates Codeshare

Air India, Alliances, Emirates, United

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

Data via Cirium

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:

Map via Cirium

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.

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32 comments on “India Opts for Protectionism in Denying United/Emirates Codeshare

  1. If the issue with Russian airspace persists, I wonder if airlines will start to find Anchorage connections economically viable again. That would be neat.

    1. Isn’t that the business model for some future airline startup / failure? Northern Pacific maybe?

    2. grichard – I don’t think Anchorage is the right solution here. Flying via Anchorage still requires going over Russian airspace to get to India if you’re looking at the most direct route. Might as well just go via East Asia.

      1. I imagine you’re probably right. When I was messing with gcmap, my proxy for avoiding Russian airspace was to route anc-nrt-del, which kind of implies the same thing that you were suggesting. But what I was really thinking, of course, was that breaking the trip in half in Alaska produces a much more fuel efficient routing then breaking it asymmetrically in East Asia. I also don’t know whether there is an economic advantage to the stop being in the US.

        1. grichard – I don’t think connecting in the US really adds anything here. I mean, the only possible benefit is that travelers go through customs on their connection in ANC on the way home instead of at their final stop.
          And it’s not really more efficient to route via Alaska since you still need a big, heavy widebody to get to India from there. It also will add a ton of time since they can’t go via Russian airspace.

  2. Can you remind me why codeshare is better than interline?

    Like I know that codeshare is slapping your flight number on another airlines flight, but why does that make a major improvement when you can still buy EK and UA tickets together with interline, on each others website and probably other agencies

    1. Interline is harder for agencies to sell, as it won’t necessarily appear as a preferred option in a GDS availability display.

      If we request UA availability to an Indian destination that would require an interline connection, some GDSs will just say UA doesn’t fly there. They don’t always automatically suggest UA to a sensible connection point and then LH/EK the rest of the way. Nope, UA doesn’t fly there, sorry.

      The agent then has to work out who they partner with, who the interline carriers might be, etc, and request a new availability, adding in the interline partners – and then mentally filter the results… A codeshare being available skips most of the mental work, and comes up as a preferred option.

      In Sabre, and an airline’s version of the GDS, at least in Amadeus, the airline will get the sensible connection suggestions first, using that own airline’s flights to all the furthest possible connecting points, then give interline connections. An airline agent is also more likely to keep mental track of who their employer’s partners are, alliance and preferred interline, and be able to focus on those options.

      A travel agent deals with ALL the alliances, and interline agreements, and joint businesses… While doable, it can sometimes be ‘jack of all airlines, master of none’ situation when trying to keep mental track of shifting interline agreements.

      Codeshares are generally simpler all around.

    2. Kip – It’s not so much that it’s “better.” In fact, I think codeshares are worse, but as they say, don’t hate the player, hate the game. As others mentioned, it shows up better in search results when it looks like a single carrier. If it didn’t spur bookings, airlines wouldn’t bother with it.

      1. So then what’s the problem? UA is the leading airline in the alliance & therefore they should be able to work with anyone within the alliance of their choosing without interference by another member.

          1. UA already codeshares with AI (and UK), but the UA pax has to get to India first…

            UA wants to codeshare w/EK too, who can offer more than AI does.

            UA/AI are Star Alliance partners, but in this EK codeshare situation, UA/AI are frenemies.

  3. It’s time to rebalance the competition scale by disallowing flights into the US that crossed Russian airspace (and thus helped fund Russia’s aggression in Ukraine).

    1. If that’s difficult to do maybe it would be easier to disallow airlines from selling tickets to US-based customers if the flights overfly Russia.

      It would also hit the China-based airlines as well as EK, QR, EY, and TK (pretty much all the major carriers still overflying Russia) although not nearly as much.

  4. Couldn’t UA achieve almost the same effect by code-sharing directly with AI over LHR or FRA? Keep it in the Star Alliance family? I understand that Tata has plans to upgrade the AI international service, but I don’t believe it’s yet on par with EK service. I can see why the EK code-share could be preferred, but there are alternatives (like over LHR) that could benefit both Star members and remove EK from the mix.

    1. Wouldn’t a UA/AI make Air India loose it’s competitive edge versus US carriers since codeshare flights with a US carrier code can’t use Russian Air space?

      I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable on a flight over Russian airspace right now (can’t imagine being stuck in Siberia for 36 hours like some passengers on the recent India-SFO flight over Russian Airspace just were after a mechanical diversion).

    2. Robert – No, Air India only serves Mumbai and Delhi from Heathrow and just Delhi from Frankfurt (but the Frankfurt times don’t work anyway). United normally serves those cities itself, although it’s only serving Delhi now thanks to the Russian airspace block. But it could connect to Lufthansa or someone else for Mumbai. Emirates is about getting much deeper into India.

      1. I was very sad to see them move the AMD flight from LHR to LGW… Would have been a very popular United connection if it was allowed

  5. Over 10 years ago there was United/ Emirates code share – or at least a way to earn United miles on flights from SFO – Dubai-Mumbai as I used to book for my team.

    Indian airlines not getting a good rep this week with then news of the plane that had to land in Russia due to mechanical issues.

  6. First, the only US carrier air service right now is from NYC to DEL on United (EWR) with a 787-9 and from JFK on AA with a 777-300ER. Because AA’s 77W configuration is relatively “light” they can operate the tortuous route on a 777 avoiding multiple no-fly zones for US carriers while UA needs the 787 – and then can only do EWR. AA has more seats right now.

    UA has served both DEL and BOM; AA has long shown a preference for DEL while DL’s preference was for BOM. DL says it will return to India but needs either the most capable A350-900s for JFK-BOM or the A350-1000 which is reportedly forthcoming.

    Thus, US carrier “own metal” service is highly limited now but service via joint venture partners, esp. in Europe is plentiful. A quick metal tally says the Star JV partners probably offer the most seats to India. UA is already in a stronger position than any other US carrier because of the European JV partners. Whether UA tried to have its JV partners expand their Europe-India service is unclear but there would clearly have been a financial advantage if they chose to add flights.

    And then there is standard interline service, which UA clearly wanted to tip in its favor with the EK deal. There are, of course, multiple combinations of non-alliance or JV carriers possible. And remember, UA doesn’t have a JV with EK and only operates one flight to DXB right now so they won’t gain much additional traffic that can be carried at all on their metal or in a JV.

    Thus, UA’s attempt to codeshare w/ EK was probably about the potential for UA to add more DXB flights and potentially enter into a JV w/ EK. AI and UA are not JV partners and can’t even codeshare on US-India flights as long as AI overflies Russian airspace.

    India could well have ensured that UA has little incentive to expand its presence in India via the Middle East – which could also have been part of India’s motivation in denying the codeshare.

  7. As I see it, this kind of protectionist action isn’t substantially different from what Judge Leo Sorokin just did in the NEA case. Both actions seem to restrict substantive competition against entrenched incumbents.

    1. since AA was once the largest carrier in NYC and UA was the largest US carrier to India before the Russian embargoes, I’m not sure the victim card will work. both were outstrategized or the victim of external decisions but both ONCE had advantageous positions.

  8. Seems like UA is distancing itself from Star Alliance partner AI and getting closer with EK. Will be interesting to see what implications this has long term.

    With QR part of OneWorld do we see EK entering the Star Alliance anytime soon?

    1. At the time the UA/EK deal was announced, a lot of us believed that it was the first step in EK entering Star. Right now, this thought probably scares the willies out of AI.

  9. I think this move (coupled with the AI flight to SFO that had to divert to Russia) will increase the odds that US regulators ban foreign carriers flying to the US (not just codeshares) from using Russian airspace. This would end AI’s service to SFO and ORD entirely.

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