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Flying freedom to US & UK
- Opening-up burst sweeps away cloud of flight restrictions

New Delhi, April 13: In two landmark pacts, India today opened up its air links to the US and the UK.

A pact negotiated earlier and ratified today by the cabinet opens up Indian skies to unlimited flights to and from the US. Though the actual number of flights which might be added this year could be between 20 and 35 a week, theoretically, it completely opens up Indian and US skies to airlines of the two countries.

Industry observers expect prices to drop on India-US routes by as much as 20 per cent.

A separate deal struck by Indian officials in London today allows 56 more flights out of Delhi and Mumbai to Heathrow a week besides permitting an unlimited number of flights from other Indian cities to destinations in the UK other than Heathrow. It also allows doubling of flights from 40 to 84 a week out of the UK.

Scarcity of traffic out of Indian cities other than Mumbai and Delhi would mean additional flights to the UK would not be too many from the low-load centres.

The new pact with the US ends the restriction that each can fly to only four cities in the other country and grants airlines the freedom to fly to other destinations. The deal will be formally signed tomorrow by US transport secretary Norman Mineta and civil aviation minister Praful Patel.

Now, Air-India serves Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey. Patel told reporters: 'Now, we want to start services to Washington, Houston, San Francisco and other US cities.'

The government has already allowed Jet Airways to fly to New York thrice a week via Brussels, while Air-India has been given permission to fly to San Francisco via Frankfurt.

Three big US airlines - Continental, Northwest and American Airlines - are slated to fly to India soon. Northwest, which already has a code-sharing arrangement with KLM to service Delhi and Mumbai from the US, is likely to launch a daily Minneapolis-Bangalore service via Amsterdam from end-October.

Currently, Air-India operates 28 flights a week to the US and American carriers just about 14. Officials said the existing agreement already provides unlimited access to airlines of both sides, though the number of destinations in either country is restricted to four, a curb that will now go.

Under the new accord, restrictions on code-sharing will also be removed.

The deal with the British says there can be 56 flights from Delhi and Mumbai to London (Heathrow), and unlimited flights from India to the UK on all other routes. There is a staggered increase of flights from Heathrow to Delhi and Mumbai - 42 in winter 2005, 49 in summer 2006 and 56 in winter 2006. Besides, British airlines can add 14 flights a week from the UK to Bangalore and Chennai and seven flights a week to any other Indian city.

Currently, British Airways operates 19 flights to India we-ekly, while Air-India has 12 to the UK. The India-UK sector is one of the most lucrative markets and airlines have been wa-nting it opened up for long.

Andy Stern, British Airways South Asia head, said: 'We are delighted by the opening up of the UK-India market.

The agreement will provide us the opportunity to operate at least double daily services from the UK to Mumbai and Delhi, something that British Airways has long aspired to.'

Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic said the agreement would lead to many extra flights.

'Passengers will benefit from the increased competition which will ultimately lead to better value for money and quality of service,' Branson said.

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