| The Air-India poster released on Thursday
London, April 21: Air-India's chairman and managing director, V. Thulasidas, who held a news conference here today to provide details of the national carrier's new, direct thrice-weekly service between Heathrow and Calcutta, starting on June 4, had to fight off negative lobbying by some of his marketing staff who did not want the airline to fly to Bengal.
Some of them told him that they would 'not get more than 100 passengers' on direct services between Heathrow and Calcutta, even though the three weekly flights operated by British Airways on this route tend to go pretty full.
It can only be assumed that Air-India's marketing men, especially in the UK, are more vulnerable to lobbying by the large and affluent Gujarati and Punjabi communities in Britain and are mainly concerned about flights to Delhi, Mumbai and Ahmedabad.
After his formal press conference today, Thulasidas, who is an IAS officer from Kerala, told The Telegraph that he was familiar with changing times in Calcutta and was upbeat about the prospects of the Bengal economy. He was sure that a growing economy would make the route profitable. 'IT is coming up in a big way,' he said.
The chairman had to give in to his accountants, however, in one respect. The Heathrow-London flights will also take in Dhaka.
Picking days on which British Airways does not operate out of Calcutta, Air-India will begin its service from Delhi on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings. These will come to Calcutta and leave in the afternoon for London. There will be a turnaround at Heathrow in the late evening on the same days for the return journey.
The problem for Air-India is that the Bengali passengers in the UK are rather different from the Bangladeshis. The former tend to be professionals ' accountants, engineers, lawyers, scientists and the like ' while the latter have been very successful in running 'Indian curry houses'. Most of the latter tend to come from Sylhet.
Thulasidas made light of the different target markets by suggesting that Air-India would help to 'bring together the dadas of Dhaka, Calcutta and London'. He also promised that 'Bengali food will be served on the Calcutta flights'.
The airline's staff are currently working out a suitable poster which would promote the Calcutta-London flights. A temporary one shows the Air-India icon holding a basket of sweets in one hand and strawberries in the other. But thought is being given to producing a poster which will capture 'the culture of Calcutta'.
The chairman would not be drawn on the fares except to say that Air-India prices would be 'dynamic', 'competitive' and reflect market conditions.
However, some travel agents are suggesting a return fare of '350 or thereabouts from Calcutta ' half what British Airways charges in the high season ' and '250 for Mumbai-London return.
Thulasidas was yesterday in Birmingham to announce Air-India's new service which will connect Amritsar, Birmingham and Toronto thrice a week.
Faced by a barrage of criticism from journalists and travel agents at Air-India's poor service and alleged rude behaviour by some of its staff, Thulasidas acknowledged the validity of some of the comments.
'Unless we improve neither will they, the staff, be there, nor the airline in a competitive world,' he said.
The number of direct Air-India services between India and the UK is going up from 10 to 24 a week. The airline is also to buy 68 new aircraft.
'I was brought in to make Air-India big,' said Thulasidas.