London, Dec. 3: Britain's Civil Aviation Authority today announced its distribution of 21 new direct flights from London to India, awarding 10 to Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic, seven to British Airways and four to British Midland, a new player on the increasingly lucrative Indian route.
The CAA, which heard submissions from the three airlines on November 11 and 12 and is responsible for licensing UK airlines, was acting as umpire following the latest pact between the British and Indian governments.
Passengers flying between Britain and India have suffered for years because demand has far outstripped supply. With an effective doubling of direct flights between the two countries, the governments hope that passengers will no longer need to fly via third countries as a high proportion need to do at present.
The CAA said today that 'its statutory duties in this case are best served by awarding' seven services to British Airways, four of which are to be operated on the Chennai route and three to Bangalore; four services to British Midland Airways to be operated on the Mumbai route; 10 services to Virgin Atlantic, seven of which are to be used on the Delhi route and three on Mumbai.
The extra flights will be introduced in three tranches from winter 2004, the CAA said.
Explaining the reasoning behind its decision, the CAA said: 'Until 30 November 2004, Virgin operated three services to Delhi under a commercial arrangement with Air-India. The CAA has decided to award the rights in this order: for Winter 2004 ' seven rights to operate to Delhi awarded to Virgin.'
It added: 'The proposal that Virgin put forward suggested that Virgin could operate up to seven services per week between London and Mumbai and Delhi during the Winter 2004 season. The CAA is therefore of the view that early utilisation of all the Delhi rights by Virgin would be both feasible and desirable.'
For Summer 2005, British Midland (BM) will operate four flights a week and Virgin three a week to Mumbai.
The statement said: 'The CAA expects BM to operate from the beginning of the season, as they had proposed for their daily service, and for Virgin to do the same.'
Also, from winter 2005, British Airways will operate four flights a week to Chennai and three a week to Bangalore. The latter is a new route.
The new flights are in addition to those which currently operate. This means that British Airways, which flies 21 times a week to India ' three are to Calcutta ' will remain the dominant airline in the Indian market.
Calcutta is not getting a bigger size of the cake and possibly more business and holiday traffic because it is still viewed as a troubled city, full of irresponsible politicians.
Commenting on the CAA decision, Branson, who has just been in Delhi on a charity trip with Cherie Blair, said: 'The CAA faced the most complex decision in its history with three British airlines competing for 21 services to four Indian cities and their decision to allow Virgin Atlantic to take on BA on Delhi and Mumbai is a good one for consumers in the UK and India.'
He added: 'We are delighted with the CAA's decision on Delhi but are disappointed and surprised that we have not been granted a daily service to Mumbai and will appeal to the Secretary of State for Transport against that element of the decision. We will commence three of the Delhi services immediately and plan to launch daily services from 1 February 2005.'
He went on: 'We will launch our new three-times-a-week service to and from Mumbai from 1 February (subject to Indian Government approval under their Open Skies deal). This simply isn't enough ' BA utterly dominates, carrying 75 per cent of First and Business class passengers flying directly between the UK and India, and it needs competition on Mumbai on a daily basis from a world-class long-haul airline with world-class products and services.'
Branson also said: 'We're also disappointed to have been denied the chance to launch new services to Bangalore and will appeal to the Secretary of State for Transport on that decision. Virgin gives consumers in both countries an immediate benefit from this decision by launching all its new services from February 2005. We will also use this expansion as a springboard for the development of other Virgin companies in India.'
For British Airways, chief executive Rod Eddington said BA would study the decision in more detail and may well continue to argue the case for more capacity to India.
Eddington said: 'While we look forward to increasing flights to Chennai and starting new services to Bangalore, we would like to operate more flights to India. The CAA's remit was to award the frequencies to the airline that could bring maximum benefits to consumers and the UK economy. We believe that we were best placed to do that.'
On behalf of British Midland, its chairman, Sir Michael Bishop, commented: 'I am delighted that the CAA has awarded these rights to us. I am even more delighted for the consumer who will now see genuine competition in action. Whilst we clearly would have preferred to offer a daily service to Mumbai from the outset, we will aim to build on these initial rights as additional capacity becomes available.'
He said: 'The CAA has recognised the need for new competition on these routes and today's decision will mean that air passengers will now have greater choice and value when flying to India and better connection opportunities to other UK regional points. I look forward to serving the Indian market and growing our services as soon as further capacity is available.'
The travel agent's point of view was given by Ananta Raman, who runs Caspian Travel, an established agency in Hampstead, north London.
He complained that such was the frenzied demand for visas that travel agents were sending representatives to queue at the Indian High Commission 'from 5.30 am onwards ' they are having to issue thousands of visas a day'.
Indians settled in the UK who travelled to India once in two or three years were now going back two or three times a year. 'Business and holiday traffic has gone up fantastically,' said Raman. 'British holidaymakers once went mainly to Delhi, Agra, Jaipur ' now they are going all over India.'
He doubted whether Branson would be able to keep his promise to halve fares ' currently '750 return to Delhi or Mumbai in winter and '500 in summer' to Transatlantic levels (to New York or Los Angeles).
'He will keep his fares one pound below British Airways,' said Ram.
The next stage in this developing drama will be an equally fierce fight between Air India, Jet and other rivals for the 21 direct flights in the opposite direction.