Last week on March 15, Transport Minister Simon Bridges signed another air services agreement for New Zealand, this time with Columbia, the fifth South American destination in as many years after the new policy was implemented in 2012.

New Zealand now has air services agreements (ASAs) in place with 61 countries and territories.

On this occasion, Mr Bridges made an interesting revelation that Air New Zealand was able to start their first direct flight to Buenos Aires in December 2015, exactly one year after the signing of the agreement with Argentina in December 2014.

Air New Zealand had then inaugurated the route by announcing that it will fly three days a week between Buenos Aires and Auckland.

An inevitable question pops in mind that how long will be the wait for a direct flight between New Zealand and India, given that the first anniversary of the signing of the code-share agreement between New Zealand and India is fast approaching in May this year.

“I have been waiting for a direct flight between New Zealand and India since last few years,” says Manish Kumar, a businessman who travels to India quite a few times for work.

In May 2016, a historic code share agreement was signed between the two countries in Auckland during Indian President Pranab Mukherjee's state visit to New Zealand creating an expectation that the direct flights between the two countries would be a reality soon.

Speaking to Indian Weekender, Tom Forster, Manager Aviation and Security, Ministry of Transport confirmed that the code sharing agreement signed in 2016 was an improvisation over the previous travel agreements between both the countries.

“New Zealand has a full Air Service Agreement in place with India that allows for both code-sharing and own aircraft services. It replaced a previous ASA signed with India in 2006.

“The main improvements over the 2006 ASA are that it allows for more flexibility regarding the routes airlines of either side may offer between the two countries. In particular, it allows New Zealand airlines to serve more destinations in India,” Mr Forster said.

Given the historic deal between the two countries and the fact that a period of one year was enough for Air New Zealand to start three times a week direct service from Auckland to Buenos Aires, then how long would it take for any similar development in New Zealand-India route?

It is not to suggest that it is Air-New Zealand’s ‘responsibility’ purely to start a direct flight between New Zealand and India. The intention here is to genuinely explore how long the wait is before a direct flight between the two countries becomes operational. 

Air New Zealand and Air India (India’s national carrier) are the only two possible players with the capability and genuine interests to launch a direct service between the two countries.

Both Air New Zealand and Air India have Boeing 787 aircraft in their fleets that could manage the 16-hour flight time.

The expectations from Air New Zealand, however, emanates from its leadership in expanding new markets in the recent past.

In 2016 alone, Air New Zealand announced direct flights to Ho Chi Minh City and Manila to open up new markets of Vietnam and Philippines respectively.

The start of Manila flight was delayed, however, as Air NZ had to announce a deferral later, owing to some administrative reasons beyond its control. The market remains confident that direct flights will be resumed soon.  

Similarly, in November 2016, Air New Zealand started to fly to Osaka, Japan, three times in a week until March 26, 2017.

In this regard, there has not been much noticeable movements in the India segment so far.

Apparently, there are some suggestions out in the market that direct flights between New Zealand and India are not yet viable.

A report released last year by NZ-Asia Research Foundation just before Auckland’s Diwali Festival of Lights on October 15 and 16, titled ‘India and New Zealand: Growing our connectivity’ pointed that Air New Zealand considers the yield on the sector as insufficient to justify non-stop flights.

The airline’s media team reiterates what is already known in the public that a direct flight to India is not on the cards yet.

“We are fully committed to our alliance with Singapore Airlines and have no current plans to introduce direct flights to India,” Air New Zealand’s media release said.

Similarly, Air India, Australia Manager, Sujoy Kishore also confirmed that New Zealand – India direct flight was not on the immediate agenda.

 “We might consider in future, but as of now there are no immediate plans,” Mr Kishore said.   

But the unanswered question is that why market forces are being so apprehensive about the potential of the Indian segment to sustain a profitable direct flight operation between the two countries.

India—a growing market

The fact that India is a fast growing market is widely acknowledged and does not need repeated emphasis.

What is needed, though, is a comparative check of the challenges and opportunities offered by the Indian segment of travel market to create an urgency of opening up a direct flight at the earliest.  

In this regard, if distance is a deterrent, then the flight distance between Auckland to New Delhi is 12,480 km, which is comparable to the New Zealand to Argentina flight distance of 10357.74 km.

According to Tourism New Zealand’s website, last year, until November 2016, the total visitor numbers to New Zealand from Argentina (and Brazil) were around 40,000.

If numbers are a deterrent, then last year, from March 2016 to February 2017, international visitor arrivals from India increased from 14.8% to 53,424, thus making India the ninth-fastest growing source destination for travellers to New Zealand, ahead of Malaysia and Indonesia.

Whereas, departures to India rose by 17.6% to nearly 52,000 until March last year suggesting Indian travel market is fast growing.

Eco Travel’s Director Amit Saha also vouches for enough numbers on the plate to justify direct flight between the two destinations.

 “We are 100% confident that a direct flight to India flight will have more than 90% occupancy every day,” Mr Saha said.

Relianz Travels Director Mr Giri would anticipate much stronger inbound traffic to New Zealand if direct flights were to start today.

Speaking to Indian Weekender, Mr Giri affirms, “We are confident that incoming traffic to New Zealand is going to increase by leaps and bound.

India—an “intrepid” destination

Apart from the existing traffic between the two countries, there is a huge potential to expand this market further by riding on India’s lure as an “intrepid” destination as described by Flight Centre NZ general manager, product, Sean Berenson.

“India has been growing in popularity with Flight Centre customers in recent years, as more Kiwis seek to travel to more intrepid, ‘off the beaten path’ destinations,” Mr Berenson said.

“During 2016, Flight Centre NZ saw an almost 10% increase in the number of customers travelling to India. Delhi, in particular, increased by almost 20% and Jaipur, Kerala, and Chennai were top spots for our customers once on the ground,” Mr Berenson added.

India—a second home for the Kiwi-Indian community

The potential of growth in Indian travel segment is not just dependent on India’s reputation as a growing market and an “intrepid” destination.

Rather there is a yet unfulfilled latent potential of India as a ‘second’ home to about 180,000 Kiwi-Indians living in New Zealand, either by birth or cultural heritage.

According to the latest estimates, there are currently 220,000 people in New Zealand who call themselves as Kiwi-Indian, with around 80 per cent of them living in Auckland alone.  The term Kiwi-Indian includes Indians born in New Zealand (including immigrants from India), Indo-Fijians, and Indians born in Africa (such as South African Indians and Indians in East Africa) or any New Zealander with at least one parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent with an Indian heritage. 

For thousands of them, who are living embodiment of Indian culture and lifestyle, visiting India and connecting back with their original roots is an unmet emotional need.

It will not be an exaggeration to assert that a large number of these people could be potential frequent travellers to India if an option of direct flight to India exists.

Experts in the travelling industry generally believe that direct flights to destinations are attractive to travellers who may not have considered the destination otherwise.

India—an alternative way to access London and Europe

Although it is more for the Indian tourism sector to position and market India in New Zealand as an alternative and cost-effective way to access London and Europe, the opportunity is there for anyone to take.

The point being made here is that creative marketing can overcome the suggested challenge of insignificant yield on this segment and push new horizons.

“It may also open up an alternative and cost-effective way to access London and Europe providing an interesting stopover destination for a lot of young Kiwis heading over to London and Europe for working holidays, an alternative to the ever popular South East Asia,” Mr Berenson said.