Nonstop to India from the United States

Q: Why don’t any airlines fly nonstop to India from the US? There’s so much traffic that I can’t imagine the demand not being sufficient.

Although more than two million people travel yearly between the United States and India, there are no regularly scheduled nonstops connecting the two countries, and there never have been. Both market forces and government restrictions are responsible.

US-India nonstops are technically feasible, and have been for many years. Nonetheless it’s a long trip. Air-India has considered such runs in the past, but JFK to Delhi, for example, is only slightly shorter than JFK to Hong Kong or JFK to Johannesburg. That’s marginally reachable for a heavily loaded 747, and probably untenable during May, June, or July, when temperatures in the Indian capital soar over 120 degrees. An Airbus A340 or 777 might be more suitable (Air-India recently leased three ex-United 777s), but set-up costs, fleet allocations, and anticipated yields don’t always warrant nonstop service, even if raw passenger totals appear to justify it. Traffic volume alone does not necessarily equate to profit.

Right now, Delta and Northwest are the only American passenger carriers operating to India — Delta via Paris; Northwest through Amsterdam, with all routes calling at Mumbai (Bombay). United Airlines previously flew to Delhi, but no longer.

Air-India serves JFK, Newark, Los Angeles and Chicago. Its flights connect in Europe, allowing the airline to capitalize on both the US-India and Europe-India markets with a single flight. Service from New York to London, for instance, connects to both London-Delhi and London-Mumbai departures.

Having said all that, the US-India market is about to be shaken drastically after ratification of a new “open skies” treaty signed by Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta and his Indian counterpart Praful Patel. The pact, ratified in New Delhi on April 14th, is expected to result in a slew of new routes, increased frequencies and lower, more competitive fares. The prior bilateral agreement, dating back to 1956, greatly handcuffed expansion and kept ticket prices high.

Already changes are underway. In May, Delta Air Lines will commence service to Chennai (Madras) from New York-JFK via Paris, while Continental is gearing up to introduce that elusive first-ever nonstop. Flights between Newark and Delhi are scheduled start in November, using 777s. Reciprocally, Air-India will open stations in Washington, San Francisco, and Houston.

(I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again: Air-India’s livery, with its Moghul arch detailing, is the most dashing one out there.)

Inside India, civil aviation is at last undergoing a growth surge after decades of stagnation. Despite having the world’s fourth largest economy and a middle class greater than the population of the United States, corruption and bureaucratic bloat have held per capita use of air travel to a level lower than Haiti’s. That, according to a recent piece in Air Transport World, which ranks India’s flights per citizen at 0.014 annually, compared to 2.02 in the United States.

Regulatory overhaul and system-wide reform are beginning to pay off. Traffic rose 24 percent last year, while Indian carriers have placed orders for nearly 200 aircraft. Air Deccan, SpiceJet, and Kingfisher Airlines lead a pack of a half-dozen upstarts, while even the stodgy old-timers are stocking up. Air-India expects to purchase about 50 planes — a mix of widebodies and 737s (the latter for its Express division, which will work the Persian Gulf, catering to the four million Indians who live, work and worship in Saudi Arabia, Dubai, Bahrain and Kuwait).

“All this is largely the result of the economic liberalization of the past fourteen years,” informs Satadru Sen, Ask the Pilot’s Indian liaison, speaking from his office at Washington University. “And of fresh government policies that have terminated the privileges of the state-owned airlines. Meanwhile, tourism by Indians is now as big as tourism to India; more Indians live and work abroad than ever before, and economic growth is almost on a par with China.”

Several heretofore domestic players have been cleared by the government for international operations. At least two of them — Jet Airways and Air Sahara — have designs on Europe and North America. The latter is looking to acquire either A340s or 777s.

Call me superficial, but something about these subcontinental newcomers really irks me, and in a way undercuts their spunk and ambitiousness. Jet Airways, for one, is known for punctuality and good service (in a culture demanding of good service, hot meals are a standard even on short intra-Indian routes), but that name — Jet Airways? — is so adolescently redundant. SpiceJet is even worse.

Then you’ve got Air Sahara. “The Hindi/Urdu word sahara,” explains Sen, “means something like hospitality, help, and solicitousness all lumped together.”

Maybe, but I’m afraid the airline will convince too many Americans that the Sahara Desert is in India. Enough of them already think it’s in Arizona.

Air Sahara’s advertising slogan is “Emotionally Yours.” Presumably this refers to how much it cares about its passengers, but there’s something scary about an emotional airline.

A kingfisher is a bird, but if you’ve ever been to India you’ll recognize it as the name of a popular Indian lager. Kingfisher Airlines is owned by Vijay Mallya of United Breweries, maker of the beer. Mallya styles himself much the flamboyant tycoon a la Richard Branson, and has borrowed Virgin Atlantic’s strategically decadent image for his airline, set to begin flying this month with a foursome of Airbus A320s (30 more have been ordered).

I don’t like it, but if the idea of naming an airline after beer seems of questionable taste, remember two words: Hooters Air.


This Q&A is part of a collection that originally appeared on Salon.com. Patrick Smith, 38, is an erstwhile airline pilot, retired punk rocker and air travel columnist. His book, Ask the Pilot (Riverhead) was voted “Best Travel Book of 2004” by Amazon.com. Patrick has traveled to more than 55 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives near Boston.