Soaring at home, Indian airlines set new course for U.S.

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Flying to India from the U.S. has never been quick, easy or cheap. But thanks to a flood of new competing air connections, including several nonstops, on tap between the world's largest and fastest-growing democracy, India, and its oldest and richest, prices may fall while frequencies and options soar.

Domestic aviation in India is sky-high, spurred both by an economy -- the world's 10th-largest and second-fastest growing -- that's expanding at more than 9% annually and by vigorous competition between subcontinental carriers as varied as state-owned Indian Airlines, budget line Spicejet and luxury carrier Kingfisher Airlines, founded by beverage kingpin Vijay Mallya.

Now India's airlines are going global with their airborne rivalry, launching new intercontinental services, both nonstop and direct, to compete with each other and U.S. and European carriers flying the routes.

Air India announced it will launch daily, nonstop service between New York (Kennedy) and Mumbai on Aug. 1, competing directly with Delta, which pioneered the route on Nov. 1, 2006.

Continental Airlines, which has flown nonstop daily between Newark and Delhi since 2005, enters the fray with four nonstops a week from Newark to Mumbai as of Oct. 1, going to daily on Oct. 30.

Meanwhile, privately owned Jet Airways launches its first-ever transatlantic service to the U.S. on Aug. 5, with the debut of daily Newark-Mumbai flights via Brussels, using new 777-300ER aircraft.

Further down the line, Kingfisher -- on the home front, busy investing in low-fare Indian carrier Air Deccan -- has ordered long-range Airbus A340-500 and A380 jets with an eye toward launching U.S. service.

The increase in airlift is warranted by a surge in interest in India, according to travel agents specializing in the destination.

"There is a huge amount of traffic between these countries now, due to IT and outsourcing and the Indian economy doing well," said Sangeeta Singh, owner of Ambi Travel in Fremont, Calif. "We have also seen an increase in non-Indian-American leisure traffic, people going to India for vacation. It's becoming a popular destination."

Singh said every day is a busy day at Ambi Travel, "not like earlier times when we had many lean years."

Maharaja's revenge

Air India's Kennedy-Mumbai route is the first in its planned series of new nonstop, long-haul connections between the two countries, according to Commercial Director V.K. Verma, who noted that international air passenger traffic in and out of India is growing by up to 19% annually.

The Mumbai-based carrier, currently undergoing a merger with domestic carrier Indian Airlines, also plans to launch nonstops between New York and Delhi in January and between San Francisco and Bangalore in late May, said Verma. Both cities are meccas for IT and high-tech software.

Air India already flies direct to India from four U.S. cities via Europe. It flies to Mumbai daily from Chicago, three times a week through London Heathrow and four times a week via Frankfurt. It flies daily from New York (Kennedy) via Heathrow and from Newark via Paris also connects Los Angeles with Delhi three times a week via Frankfurt.

Economy fares on the new nonstops will be priced some 15% to 20% higher than the existing direct services that they mirror, which will eventually be discontinued, said Verma; the disparity in business- and first-class fares will be even greater.

Air India chose to inaugurate its transatlantic nonstops on the New York route because of its "blue ribbon" status, he said.

"Right from the 1960s, it has had pride of place in Air India's operations," said Verma, noting the carrier used the route to showcase its Boeing 707 jets in 1960, 747-200 jumbos in 1971 and 747-400s in 1993.

"Today, after 14 years, we're on track to debut the best, most competitive product on the New York-Mumbai route ... where Air India has always set the standard."

In keeping with tradition, Air India's New York-Mumbai route will introduce the airline's first-ever Boeing 777-200LR aircraft, flying with a three-class configuration.

The carrier will take delivery of two of the airplanes on July 25 and 26. Air India has placed orders with Boeing for a total of 68 new aircraft, including 27 of its 787 Dreamliners, to be delivered in late 2008.

Painted in brand-new livery, outfitted with new interiors and seating and staffed by retrained or new crew members, the 777s will herald a rebirth for India's much-maligned flag carrier, according to Verma.

Singh of Ambi Travel is not as sure. "I'm not sure how well Air India will fare [as] it may not be travelers' first choice," she said. "The service is not 100%; the staff are nice people, but the aircraft are not very clean."

Air India has suffered from a poor reputation in the industry in regard to performance, sanitation and the age of its fleet. Verma acknowledged the challenges ahead.

"I will be candid in admitting our product has had some flaws," he said. "But we're setting that right, [and] Air India is set to regain its glory of just a few years past."

Verma said Air India will offer the only first-class cabin on nonstop routes to India from the U.S. as well as industry-leading flat-bed seats in business class and the most legroom in economy.

Jet set for U.S.

Jet Airways, in the midst of a $3.7 billion growth plan, is taking a more traditional approach to extending its reach to the U.S. and Canada. It's developing a major hub in Brussels that will eventually connect flights from six North American cities to five key gateways in India: Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Chennai and Ahmedabad.

The connecting service between Newark and Mumbai inaugurates the plan, followed by Toronto-Delhi service starting Sept. 5.

Jet Airways will fly new Boeing 777-300ER planes on the routes. It has placed orders for 10 777s and 10 Airbus A330 jets as well as 10 Boeing 787s.

The carrier said it will begin direct flights from New York (Kennedy), Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco as aircraft deliveries are completed through October 2008.

Jet's new aircraft will feature eight private, first-class suites with sliding double-doors, 83-inch beds, 23-inch TVs, two closets and a work/dining table. Business-class cabins are outfitted with 73-inch flat beds; TVs with 15.4-inch screens; and oversize work tables, and economy has new, ergonomically designed seating with 130-degree recline and individual, in-seat reading lights.

Jet Airways' new in-flight bells and whistles may help distract from longer overall travel times, but the stopover in Brussels itself may be just what some passengers are looking for, said Singh of Ambi Travel.

"We get some clients, especially those flying economy, who say [long-haul] nonstops are too hard on them," she said. "I'd say 70% of travelers are happy with nonstops to India, but the rest say it's not feasible and would prefer to have a break."

Kingfisher, meanwhile, is not sitting on its laurels while awaiting delivery of its A380 superjumbos. The Bangalore-based carrier signed an agreement with Continental implementing frequent-flyer and lounge access reciprocity as of Oct. 1.

By year's end, Continental will place its code on Kingfisher's domestic Indian flights out of Delhi and Mumbai that connect to its own Newark nonstops. Customers will enjoy single check-in for all flights, including electronic tickets, boarding passes and checked baggage to final destinations.

To contact Destinations editor Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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