Air India, the national carrier, is set to become the first airline after perhaps the now defunct Pan American World Airways that will operate a flight that would go around the globe. The Director General of Civil Aviation has granted permission to Air India to go from New Delhi via the Pacific route to San Francisco in the United States. However, on its return journey to New Delhi, the non-stop flight would undertake the path over the Atlantic, thus becoming the only airline in the world whose same aircraft would cover its entire journey by flying around the globe. At present the inbound and outbound flights cover their distance over the Atlantic.
Talking to The Sunday Guardian, Ashwani Lohani, Chairman and Managing Director of Air India stated that the global route was likely to become functional from 15 October and AI-173 would fly eastbound over the Pacific to its destination in California in the United States. The idea is to take advantage of the strong tailwinds that would help in cutting down both the fuel cost and the travelling time. The total time thus saved could be from 45 minutes to 90 minutes on this route to San Francisco. The AI-174 from San Francisco to New Delhi would come back via the existing Atlantic route. The non-stop flight, which is operated three days in a week, would subsequently fly on six days in a week this winter in view of the growing passenger demand.
The Delhi-San Francisco flight is amongst the longest duration long haul direct flights by any airline. Aviation experts say that the earth rotates from the west towards the east and this is also the direction of the wind speed. Thus the flight would be assisted by tailwinds all along.
Air India has direct non-stop flights to Chicago and New York, two other busy destinations in the United States. According to CMD Lohani, the airline is proposing to start a direct flight to Washington DC in the near future. Both US and Europe are considered to be busy and profitable routes by Air India. A large number of frequent travellers prefer flying by Air India due to its excellent service and hospitality.
Prior to Air India, Pan Am was the only airline in the world to go around the globe in the 1970s and 1980s and had the biggest fleet of Jumbos. Its famous flight routes 001 and 002 were extremely popular as they covered a number of cities from San Francisco, Honolulu, Hong Kong, Bangkok, New Delhi, Beirut, Istanbul, Frankfurt, London and New York in both directions. The traveller could hop off anywhere on the way and could resume his or her journey within the stipulated period of 180 days, which was the total life of the ticket. After Pan Am folded up, the routes were partially sold to United Airlines, Delta Airlines and Lufthansa.
Air India has made a lot of inroads into the European and American market since CMD Lohani took over. In the past one year, the airline has started operations to San Francisco from New Delhi, a three days a week flight from Ahmedabad to Newark in the US via London and a direct flight to Vienna. CMD Lohani said that there is a proposal to start a direct flight to Madrid from New Delhi later this year. In all, Air India flies on a regular basis to London, Paris, Frankfurt, Vienna, Rome-Milan. The Madrid flight would be another feather in the cap. In the US, after its flight to Washington DC commences, there would be five destinations which the airline would cover in the United States.
He said that he was inspired by Richard Branson’s commitment towards the employees of the Virgin Atlantic Airlines and wanted to replicate it in the premier national carrier as well. “The employees are the backbone of any organisation and if they are looked after properly, the organisation would ultimately benefit.”
He admitted that there were some issues with the Air India website and said that efforts were being made to improve the linkages and the services. Similarly, over the past one year, he has attempted to streamline the in-flight food and beverages services, though there was a scope for further improvement.
The CMD side-stepped questions about the maintenance of the Air India fleet, both domestic as well as international and said that so far as safety norms were concerned, Air India has not made any compromises and ranked very high: “Our commitment to passenger safety is our primary concern and this has not been allowed to deteriorate.” Other issues are also being addressed simultaneously. He said that in order to meet the problem of fog and low visibility in some airports like New Delhi in the winters, the pilots are being given Cat III and IV training. “We have the highest trained pilots for such eventualities in our staff as compared to other airlines.”
He said that the airline business was extremely competitive and this had led to low cost tickets. The average prices of tickets to destinations both in Indian and outside have remained unchanged in the last few years due to stiff competition. He said that with our airports getting a face lift and becoming world class, more and more passengers were travelling by air each year thereby adding to the total volume of air traffic. He said that there was a plan to add one more runway to the Delhi airport in view of the rising traffic.
He declined to comment on whether the merger of Air India and Indian Airlines had affected the overall efficiency. He said that mergers are always complicated and what has been done cannot be undone. The idea is to improve the efficiency and services of the airline and things were happening in this direction.