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Airlines add flights to India to meet rising demand

India is expected to be the world's third-largest aviation market by 2024

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A growing number of Indians are living and working in the US, Canada, Britain and elsewhere, and that means more homeland visits for traditionally close-knit Indian families.

Mumbai

SINGAPORE Airlines added nine weekly flights to India last year, bringing its total to 104. Air France-KLM is increasing its seat capacity on Indian flights by 25 per cent this winter. United Airlines has just begun offering non-stop seasonal daily flights from San Francisco to Delhi. And Delta Air Lines began non-stop service between Kennedy International Airport in New York and Mumbai in December.

In the past few years, more than 20 of the 80 international airlines that fly to India have added services, in some cases through arrangements with other airlines, called code sharing.

Travel between the United States and India increased 10.3 per cent from the first half of 2018 to the first half of 2019, American Express Global Business Travel reported.

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At this pace, India is expected to become the third-largest aviation market by 2024, behind China and the US, said the Center for Aviation, a company that provides market intelligence to the aviation and travel industry.

The uptick in flights, experts say, is the result of a variety of economic, social, immigration and travel trends. More international social media and tech companies are setting up shop in India or increasing their staff.

A growing number of Indians are living and working in the US, Canada, Britain and elsewhere, and that means more homeland visits for traditionally close-knit Indian families.

Tourism continues to rise. The contribution of travel and tourism to India's gross domestic product is expected to increase to US$492.2 billion in 2028, from US$234 billion in 2017. The World Travel and Tourism Council ranked India third among 185 countries in terms of tourism's total contribution to the national economy in 2018. It was seventh in 2016.

The international airlines have also increased the flights in the wake of the collapse of Jet Airways last April, which in 2018 accounted for nearly 20 per cent of passengers flown by Indian airlines, and the slow decline of the Indian government-owned carrier Air India.

While there are signs of an economic slowdown in India, business travel to India remains strong. And driving that travel is bilateral trade, said Gunjan Bagla, managing director of Amritt Ventures in Malibu, California, which helps Western companies market their products and services to India.

"When I started my company in 2003, bilateral trade between India and the US was US$16 billion," said Mr Bagla, who is also the author of Doing Business in 21st Century India. "Now it's US$142 billion. That means more executives are flying back and forth hashing out deals face to face."

In addition, he said, he sees indications that the Indian government "has become more business-friendly".

Raymond Kollau, founder of aviation research agency Airline Trends, said that while studies showed that well-established aviation regions like Europe and North America would continue to grow, "the global economic centre of gravity is shifting from the West to emerging Asian countries, which means more airlines are looking east before they look west."

He cited an Airbus forecast of a steeper increase in air trips per capita in India and China from 2018 to 2038 than in the US. The forecast attributed the rise to a faster-growing middle class in emerging countries than in mature Western nations.

Stéphane Ormand, vice-president and general manager of Air France-KLM USA, said the economic growth in India, despite fluctuations, still exceeded China's. He said, "That's triggered our focus on India now."

He continued: "It was very different 15 years ago, when China was growing fast. Now, India is growing faster than China. Their improved infrastructure - roads, airports, electricity, better connectivity - all make travelling and working there easier."

Not only are airlines adding flights to and from India, they're also bringing more Indian culture to the in-flight experience.

Many are offering more films in regional dialects and menus with dishes that reflect India's diverse culinary tradition. British Airways, which last summer increased its weekly flights between India and London to 56 from 49, offers films in Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Punjabi, Telugu and Bengali.

Lufthansa, which already operates daily non-stop flights from Frankfurt and Munich to four Indian cities and will start five-day-a-week flights in April between Munich and Bangalore, shows films in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, along with five television shows in Hindi.

Manny Chohan is the dream target of these airlines - business traveller, family visitor and tourist. Born in the Indian state of Punjab and now a naturalised citizen of the US, he has lived in New York for 35 years.

The executive vice-president of revenue and operations for Dream Hotels, he travels two or three times a year to India to look for property development deals. He adds quick visits to his relatives in Punjab, but also goes with his whole family on longer stays to see others throughout India and to take side trips to historic sites.

Mr Chohan said he flew on Etihad Airways because it offered him the greatest number of options to cities in India from New York, connecting through Abu Dhabi. Etihad, the second-largest airline in the United Arab Emirates, started service to India in 2004, with a daily flight to Mumbai. It now flies 159 times a week to 10 Indian cities.

Etihad and Emirates, the biggest airline in the UAE, cater to the regional tastes of Indians and Indian food lovers. Emirates, for example, introduced a Gujarati dish, turiya vatana muthia (ridge gourd and green pea dumpling), on flights out of the Gujarat state's hub, Ahmedabad.

The growing number of Indians who have left their homeland continues to spur more travel to visit family. In Canada, for example, Indians are now the second-largest immigrant community (after the Chinese), with about 30,000 people a year moving there. Canada's national airline, Air Canada, now has 18 weekly flights from Toronto and Vancouver to Mumbai and Delhi; many have Hindi-speaking flight attendants.

"The Indian market is of major importance to us," said Mark Galardo, the vice-president of network planning at Air Canada. The airline has hired Vikram Vij, a Canadian-Indian celebrity chef, to develop menus for first-class travellers. Business class travellers on Air Canada flights from Toronto to Delhi can now choose such dishes as "Maharaja-style" butter chicken and paneer or chana masala, served with roasted cumin rice and garlic cilantro naan. NYTIMES