With eyes fixed to the clouds outside his window, Manoj Kumar is trying to fasten his seat belt. After a struggle, the shopkeeper from Delhi explains that flight DN661 to Bangalore is his first. “I have never flown before,” he says. “It is like being on a fairground ride.”

Until recently, air travel across India was only for businessmen and women, foreign tourists, and visits home from the country’s vast diaspora. Fares were prohibitively expensive and the middle class travelled on the British Raj’s most visible legacy: the railways.

But a booming economy, a congested and crumbling train network and the emergence of low-cost carriers similar to Ryanair have meant a slice of Indian society taking to the skies for the first time. With half-a-dozen airlines planning to launch in the next year, fares have tumbled – and more than a third of the seats will be filled with first-time flyers. Three years ago a return ticket from New Delhi, India’s capital, to Mumbai, the country’s financial hub, was fixed at 20,000 rupees (£250). Now travellers who book online can get a ticket for 450 rupees. Also, towns which used to be connected only by slow train services or potholed highways, have been linked by a series of airstrips unused since the end of the second world war.

Behind this transformation of the aviation sector is Captain GR Gopinath, a former army officer who ran a private helicopter business in the early 90s. “I used to fly over small towns and villages and saw satellite dishes and TV aerials pop up on all these tiny houses,” he said. “It told me that if people could afford to pay 5 rupees a day for television, then a new mindset was emerging. Rather than seeing India as a country with a billion people to be fed and subsidised, I saw 1 billion hungry consumers.”

It was an advert that convinced him India was ready for take off. “We ran an advert which showed a girl on an island with a caption that said: ‘If it’s on the map we will get you there.’ Then we kept on getting calls from people thinking we were an airline and wanting to book tickets. I realised then that India wanted to fly.”

In 24 months, Air Deccan has revolutionised Indian air travel. Last year it carried 1 million passengers, this year that figure will reach 4.4 million. With 35 destinations, the fleet is already stretched and the company has ordered a further 62 aircraft.

I don’t think India can redevelop and expand train service — and keep up with demand for domestic air travel at the same time. It seems obvious what the market wants.



  1. GregAllen says:

    If been on planes in India with first-time flyers. Usually, it is fine but funny like watching people try to open the windows to get fresh air! But once I was on a plane when that vabor thing started happening with A/C… you know when fog comes out of the vent in very humid climates. People were JUST CONVINCED that the plain was on fire and started to panic. I was wondering if someone was going to open the emergency door!

  2. AB CD says:

    Deregulation’s been paying off for about 10 years now. 450 rupees is just $10.


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