Ask the average Indian traveller what she wants most from her choice of airline, and the answers vary from 'convenient schedule', 'quality of food' and of course 'best value for money'. With a generation of Indians who believe that time saved is money earned, flying has become the preferred medium of travel. Gone are the days where it was considered a luxury.
With domestic passengers growing from 1.4 crore to 4.6 crore between 2000-2010, Indians are clearly flying high. In the 2011 HT-MaRS Airline survey, Jet Airways has topped in eight of the nine parameters that customers rated airlines on, from 'check-in process' to 'boarding' and 'meals'.
Kingfisher Airlines, the 2009 survey topper, was a close second. The airline which has seen the biggest fall was Spicejet. Other low-cost carriers such as IndiGo and the soon-to-be-shut-down Kingfisher Red have climbed in terms of scores as well as rank.
The key drivers of this sector in India have been an increase in cargo, tourist traffic and a decrease in fares owing to low-cost carriers leading to the huge increase in passengers. Looking at the future, a majority of the growth is expected to come from tier-2 and tier-3 cities. Bombardier, an aircraft manufacturer, has estimated that 40% of domestic demand in India will be from smaller towns by 2015.
Given these trends, airlines are offering something for all - be it frequent fliers looking for service and comfort or the first time flier looking out for the best deal.
"Jet Airways offers the best schedules while Indigo is extremely disciplined in its on-time performance," said Mumbai-based entrepreneur Milan Zatakia, summing up the demands of today's frequent fliers.
For the born-in-a-hurry types, the rise in options has been a blessing. "I prefer air travel because it saves time, and is not that expensive if one compares it with the time and energy saved," said Jayant Krishna, an IT consultant in Lucknow.
A study by the International Civil Aviation Organisation suggests that $100 spent on the airline industry generates $350 for the economy overall and 100 additional jobs in air transport creates 650 new jobs across the economy. With more airports and greater connectivity to metros, smaller towns are expanding their business avenues, fuelling growth.
Flying from such towns has its unique advantages. "Bhopal is a comparatively smaller town where you can easily report to the check-in counter 45 minutes in advance. Moreover the traveling time from home to the airport is barely 20 minutes which makes it convenient," he adds.
The story of the airline industry in India has slowly moved away from how cheap the Delhi-Mumbai ticket has gotten, to how these cities have become prominent on the aviation map.
(With inputs from Soubhik Mitra in Mumbai, Anupam Srivastava in Lucknow and Rahul Noronha in Bhopal)