The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Lalu, beware of the big birds

Mumbai, May 8: A Rajdhani on wings could give Lalu Prasad’s railways a run for its money.

Imagine hopping on to a seven-storey-tall plane for a Calcutta-Mumbai or Calcutta-Delhi trip without too much pressure on your pocket. It just might happen.

Airbus, after plugging its giant A380s for long-distance hauls, now claims that its all-economy 850-seat version could work out cheaper than the Rajdhani Express, middle-class Metro India’s favourite mode of travel. It says carriers, including foreign airlines, are interested.

“We have a hundred seats more than a Rajdhani, and an Airbus 380 uses up 25 per cent less fuel than a normal passenger jet,” Airbus Industrie’s chief operating officer (customer), John Leahy, said.

The economics, the company believes, could fit the two- to three-hour flights that connect India’s big cities.

Sources said Air Deccan chief G.R. Gopinath, who was on an A380 test flight from France, was studying the possibility of pitting an A380 against the Rajdhani.

His company has been facing mounting losses after having revolutionised cheap air travel in India.

Boeing, which is working on a rival fuel-efficient series — the 787 Dreamliner — hasn’t yet spoken about using it on shorter routes. But analysts believe that its rivalry with Airbus may lead it to explore this option.

If the economics of flying the two “big birds” on short, high-density routes work out, they could give a tough time to Indian Railways, which earned some Rs 275 crore by carrying nearly three million passengers in 2005.

There won’t be a walkover. The railways plan to borrow $15 billion (Rs 61,335 crore) over the next five years to build tracks and passenger cars and modernise stations.

Although much of that money is likely to be spent on a freight corridor connecting Delhi with Mumbai and Calcutta, some may well go towards making the Rajdhani faster and cheaper.

Lalu Prasad is aware of the threat from the airline industry that has been growing at over 20 per cent a year, thanks to a burgeoning middle class and easy financing by global banks to aircraft buyers.

But most airlines that have either followed Gopinath’s low-cost model or tried to match his fare cuts while offering full-service flights are in trouble. They have been losing about Rs 500 per passenger on most flights that offer huge discounts.

On top of that, with airport infrastructure stretched to the limit, airlines are finding flight slots and parking bays difficult to come by. Jets flying into the metros are often forced to circle for up to half an hour before being allowed to touch down.

Analysts say bigger planes like the A380 and the B787 would mean more passengers on fewer flights, reducing the congestion.

Of course, Airbus will be able to deliver these planes only by 2012 even if an order is placed right now. And Boeing is still assembling its Dreamliner.

Lalu Prasad might well argue that by the time the big birds are ready to fly, the railways will have evolved enough to take them on.

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