San Francisco to New Delhi flight could mark beginning of Air India’s turnaround

Air India reported losses of Rs 1,800 crore till January this year on all international routes, according to an internal analysis.

Written by Leela Prasad | New Delhi | Updated: October 3, 2015 6:48:02 pm
Air India, Air India San Francisco Delhi, San Francisco Delhi flight Narendra Modi’s announcement put to bed rumours of a flight between Bangalore and San Francisco, which would have gone on to become the world’s longest flight.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi almost forgot to announce the non-stop flight connecting San Francisco and New Delhi during his address at SAP centre in San Jose. Addressing the Indian diaspora, Modi spent over an hour talking on almost everything from terrorism to technology. After the prime minister finished his address and left the stage amid cries of ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ and ‘Bhagat Singh Amar rahe’, he was back moments later to share the “good news”.

Modi’s announcement put to bed rumours of a flight between Bangalore and San Francisco, which would have gone on to become the world’s longest flight.

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The fight between San Francisco and Delhi, which will run three times a week, doesn’t even break into the top 10 longest flights list. And it will not even be the longest flight from India. That credit goes to Air India’s Bombay to Newark non-stop flight that clocks a distance of 12,540 km in 15 hours and 55 minutes. The emphasis here is on “non-stop” because it is easily confused with a “direct flight”. Non-stop means there won’t be any intermediate stops unlike direct flights. Take for example the Quantas non-stop flight from Dallas to Sydney, it is a 17-hour flight which is currently the world’s longest until Emirates announced plans to link Dubai and Panama in 17-and-a-half-hours.

In the grand scheme of air travel, Air India’s soon to be commenced flight to San Francisco will be nothing more than a footnote. The significance of Modi’s announcement is not where India stands in a compiled list of longest flights, but in bringing the Indian population living in Bay area closer.

Indians are currently the third largest Asian ethic group living in California behind the Chinese and Filipinos. Providing a non-stop flight for the 3.2 million American Indians is gamble that could provide good returns for the loss-making Air India. The carrier reported losses of Rs 1,800 crore till January this year on all international routes, according to an internal analysis.

flight paths may vary

Air India, amid much fanfare, started operations to Rome, Moscow and Sydney over the last two years. The returns have been so diminishing that they were forced to reduce the number of trips to Moscow to just twice per week. The fuel-efficient Boeing 787s were inducted in Air India’s fleet hoping to reverse the fortunes of the flagging carrier. However, the management overestimated interest in these international routes and couldn’t even meet operational costs due to low occupancy rates.

Ashwani Lohani, a former railway bureaucrat, was appointed as chairman and managing director two months ago to stop the carrier from bleeding dry. Trimming the mountain of debt and redirecting the available resources towards profitable routes should turn Air India green once again.

But are non-stop flights Air India’s answer to its loss-making international routes?

Those travelling to the United States usually opt for a stopover at any of these three airports: Dubai, London and Tokyo. It would make more economical sense, though not always, to take a connecting flight instead of a non-stop. Travellers prefer to stretch their legs and plan their journey in phases than sit in cramped spaces, breathing the same recirculated air for hours. There are no sleep masks and earplugs in the market that can prepare you for close to 16 hours of flying; that is passing through multiple time zones and being woken up between hours of fitful wakefulness for breakfast, lunch and coffee.

Plus there are other reasons why Indians living in America prefer other commercial airliners over Air India. A frequent traveller between India and USA told Indianexpress.com that Air India has a poor customer service  and sub-standard food. Perhaps an overall face lift is in order to make the airliner more competitive in the market and increase customer confidence.

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