As the little known Arkia Airlines touched down in Kochi last week, there were celebrations all around. The airline also starts flights to Goa, which means India will be connected from four destinations in Israel. Arkia has all but 10 aircraft in its fleet and these flights were possible with the increasing range of aircraft for such thin routes.
Arkia is not alone and Kochi or Goa are not unique. The country has a whole bunch of interesting air links to international destinations – both by city pairs and airlines. For the seemingly difficult and challenging international operating environment which is governed by bilateral agreements and restrictions, here’s a look at some interesting links.
The southern city of Tiruchirapally has five flights a day to Kuala Lumpur – the capital of Malaysia, which is more than the flights to Kuala Lumpur from Delhi or Mumbai! Tamil Nadu has another interesting link – that to the island of Reunion, an overseas department and region of France in Indian Ocean. Air Austral – the airline of Reunion Island flies to Chennai. With less than 10 aircraft in its fleet, that’s the only connection to India. What could be the reason? Indians migrated during the days of French East India Company and Tamils are the largest group amongst the Indian community.
Chennai is also connected to Medan – the capital of North Sumatra region of Indonesia with a direct (same flight number and aircraft) flight by Batik Air via Kuala Lumpur. While AirAsia and Lion Air group launched flights from Indonesia to India via Kuala Lumpur in rapid succession to get over the limited bilateral rights between Malaysia and India, the Chennai-Kuala Namu (Medan) connection is the only one that has survived.
From the Indian Ocean Region two more airlines serve India – Air Seychelles which flies to Mumbai from Seychelles and Air Mauritius which has direct flights to Delhi and Mumbai, but if you are flying from Bengaluru, you fly via Chennai and if you are flying to Chennai, you reach via Bengaluru since the airline operates a triangular routing of Mauritius-Bengaluru-Chennai-Mauritius!
Lately, Delhi has become a regional magnet and as India’s dominance in geopolitical matters goes up – the Indian capital is becoming an important place for central Asian region, for politics, medical tourism and education.
While most do not know Afghanistan beyond Kabul and Kandahar, the country’s national carrier Ariana Afghan connects Herat to Delhi, in addition to Kandahar and Kabul while another carrier Kam Air connects Mazari Sharif to Delhi while plying daily on the popular Kabul-Delhi route.
While India has had close connects with the Soviet Union post-independence, the air connectivity had seen limited extension beyond Moscow. As the newly independent countries post fall of Soviet Union stabilised, connectivity returned from the CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States). Air Astana, Uzbekistan airlines and Turkmenistan airlines have been operating to India for a considerable time linking Almaty, Tashkent and Ashgabat respectively. Little known airline Avia Traffic Company of Kyrgyzstan, with a fleet of less than 10 aircraft connects Delhi to Bishkek – the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Recently, Azal Airlines started flights between Delhi and Baku – the capital of Azerbaijan while Ukraine International Airlines has sustained its flights to Kyiv.
The airlines from Middle East have often been accused of stealing traffic but there are flights beyond the UAE, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. As Iraq recuperates from the war and its relations warm up with India, Iraqi Airways – the national carrier of Iraq – connected Basrah to Delhi in addition to flights from Baghdad. Interestingly, the airline also connects Najaf to Ahmedabad. Najaf is a holy city and a pilgrimage centre, which is also connected from Delhi by Air India.
While IndiGo is betting big on religious tourism, Air India and Myanmar International Airlines have been operating flights between Gaya and Yangoon for years, giving a vital link between two Buddhist places.
A late addition to the scene from Africa has been a connection to Kigali – the capital of lesser known country of Rwanda is connected by Rwandair to Mumbai and extends services to Guangzhou – which acts as the only link between Mumbai and Guangzhou.
Technology has progressed in the last couple of decades and the newer aircraft with longer range and better economics like the B787 have helped airlines like Air Canada relaunch flights to India. While the mainline airlines battle it out with flights to India and addition to their hubs, these unique links sometime make a world of a difference to the territories and countries which provide them.
With all countries easing visa restrictions gradually, both inbound and outbound tourism gets a boost, apart from showcasing country’s soft power by the means of attractiveness as an education destination and medical tourism.
As airlines from India expand, one wonders who will be the first one to try these routes and make a mark as brand ambassador of the country – in addition to Air India, which has been going to the nooks and corners of the world.
Ameya Joshi is the founder of aviation analysis blog NetworkThoughts. Read Ameya Joshi's columns