Amit Singh was waiting outside Kolkata airport on Friday. The 26-year-old from Patna — he had flown only twice in his life — was about to catch a flight from Kolkata to Bangalore. As airfares from Patna are higher, he had opted for a low-cost carrier from Kolkata.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to even think of flying if these low-cost airlines were not there,” said Singh, a software engineer at one of India’s largest software companies.
Millions of middle-class Indians like Singh are now flying around the country — and the world. Last year, 60 million Indians flew on domestic routes alone — a 500 per cent jump from the figure of 12 million 10 years ago.
And the numbers are growing.
It was Captain G R Gopinath, founder of Air Deccan (now merged with Kingfisher) and the father of low-cost aviation in this country, who first weaned Indians off the railways and gave them wings.
“I wanted to break the (elitist) caste and cost barriers and enable common people to fly,” he told HT. Singh recalled how happy his parents were when he sent them air tickets for Bangalore when they came visiting last winter.
“The experience was thrilling for them. Their journey was comfortable and that I could afford the tickets made them happier,” he said, beaming from ear to ear.
Until Deccan burst on the scene in 2003 with Re 1 fares, flying was a luxury, affordable only to a handful.
Visit any airport across India and you’ll see the difference. Low-cost flying has given birth to a new kind of ‘socialism’. To large sections of the Indian middle class, air travel is now the norm. With economic liberalisation and the growth of the Indian economy more people now fly across the country and abroad on work.
“The shift towards air travel is primarily because of its affordability. Trains are losing out to planes as people prefer to fly than spend time in trains,” said social scientist Dipankar Gupta.
The difference between airfares and AC II train fares is Rs. 1,000 for one-way travel on most sectors. “Now I can look up travel portals for cheapest fares available. Even airlines offer cheap tickets though various schemes,” said advertising executive Samarth Sinha, 29, who works for a mid-sized Kolkata-based agency. He was one of those who, until recently, thought air travel was beyond his means.
“Thanks to low-cost carriers, I can save a lot of time and travel at almost the same cost,” he explained.
Take a look at these numbers. The combined fleet of all Indian airlines has jumped from 122 aircraft in 2003 to 333. And 350 new ones will be delivered over the next 5-6 years. Aircraft maker Boeing predicted in its recently published ‘Commercial Aviation Market Outlook’ for 2009 that the Indian market will need an additional 1,000 planes over the next 20 years.
And a majority of them will be bought by budget carriers.
“Low-cost carriers not only connected India but made flying affordable,” said Kapil Kaul, chief of global airline advisory firm Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation.
In 1997-98, India saw its first aviation boom, and the advent of private airlines like Jet Airways, Sahara (now Jet Lite), Damania Airways, ModiLuft and NEPC Airlines. But the bubble soon burst and many of these carriers got grounded.
A decade later, India finally won its wings and this time, despite recent hiccups — a loss of Rs. 10,000 crore in 2008-09 for the industry as a whole and an aborted strike by private carriers — it looks like it’s going to last.