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India’s ‘festival of first-time fliers’

As British eco-activists fly into a fury over the Third Runway, millions of Indians are exploring the skies on cheap flights.

Rob Lyons
Columnist

Topics Science & Tech

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The gleaming white marble, the symmetry of the buildings and the skill of the tens of thousands of craftsmen who built it made my trip this week from Delhi to the Taj Mahal worth the expense and the hassle. But after nine hours on the road in a single day, I was starting to feel that it wasn’t only the Agra mausoleum that was a labour of love: so is getting around India.

The dual carriageway was used by everyone and everything: camels, bullocks, little auto-rickshaws crammed with as many as eight people, massive trucks and fast-moving cars, with cyclists and pedestrians darting across the road in the villages and towns that the carriageway passed through. It was like an unnerving version of Wacky Races. If anyone wants an idea for a video game, try driving in India.

The train would have been a bit quicker, and no doubt smoother – after all, we’re only talking about a distance of 120 miles from Delhi to Agra. However, the road trip to the Taj Mahal was a powerful reminder of the trials and tribulations of travelling round a big country like India. And it made me wish I could have flown instead.

Two days previously, I had made the journey from Chennai (formerly Madras) in the south-east to Delhi in the north – about 1,100 miles. The Indian railway, inspirer of many a misty-eyed Western travel journal, would have made the trip in around 33 hours. My flight on Jet Airways took two-and-a-half. Even allowing for the time it took to get to and from the airports, and the irritations of ever-greater security checks, where taking the train would have wiped out two precious days of my trip, flying took up half a day in total and got me in to town in time for dinner.

The advantages of the plane have been obvious to the well-off for years. What’s really changed in India since 2003 has been the explosion of budget carriers that have expanded access to air travel to far more of the population. Prior to that, there were just three airlines of note flying domestically – now there’s a dozen. The new upstarts are substantially cheaper; the no-frills model pioneered by Southwest in the USA and Ryanair in Europe has been a hit in India, too.

Over the past three years, air passenger traffic in India has grown by 30 to 35 per cent. In 2006, domestic traffic alone grew by 48 per cent. Government figures now put the number of Indian flight passengers at 30 million a year. The relatively cheap Jet Airways is the most popular domestic airline amongst Indians; in October 2008, it carried 617,000 passengers. Jet now has 19.7 per cent of the domestic flying market, with Air India (Domestic) coming in second place with 18 per cent.

I flew from Delhi to Chennai with Jet Airways, which is an established, full-service carrier: meal, comfy seats, video on demand etc. A regular ticket would cost 16,650 rupees (around US$345 or £240), including surcharges and taxes. Even the cheapest possible fare booked on Jet would be about 10,000 rupees (roughly US$210 or £145). The same trip on Indigo, however, one of the new budget carriers, would cost only 8,000 rupees – a significant saving on even the rock-bottom, no-refund ticket from Jet, and a massive saving on the normal price.

It’s no wonder, then, that Indians are enthusiastic new arrivals to the jet set. Amitava, an events manager based in Delhi, tells me how budget airlines have opened up flying to a new audience: ‘Even the ordinary people who used to travel by train, because that’s the cheaper mode of travel in India, they have started to travel by air. So, we have a whole new profile of people who have taken to air travel.’

He continues: ‘Even the better-paid garment employees, when they would go on their holidays, could only travel by train – because the allowance they used to receive for a family trip once or twice a year used to be such that they could only travel by air-conditioned sleeper train. Now that you can book your air tickets well in advance you can actually pay less than you would pay to travel by train.’

Amitava’s colleague, Rebecca, is from Darjeeling in the north-east of the country, a stone’s throw from Nepal. ‘I realised recently I haven’t travelled on a train for four years. On normal Jet Airways or Kingfisher it would be around 16,000 rupees [to fly to Nepal], but if I book two months in advance on low-budget carriers I get it for 7,000 rupees. I used to go once or twice a year but now I can do it more often because 7,000 rupees is nothing. It used to take 28 hours back to Darjeeling, now it takes two-and-a-half hours.’

The phenomenon has been noted elsewhere. In October 2007, the Hindustan Times noted that that year’s Hindu festival of Diwali was marked by a new trend: ordinary people flying home for the first time. The newspaper christened the event the ‘festival of first-time fliers’. It also described the case of Devraj, a 50-year-old barber. His air ticket from Bombay to Bangalore cost 2,800 rupees, which he could afford even on his 8,000 rupees per month salary – and he could spend the time that he saved by skipping the train journey on garnering another two days worth of tips.

Another factor in the expansion of Indian airlines has been the growth of the Indian economy in general. As Amitava points out, people now have more money to spend – and that also opens up the possibility of foreign travel. Going abroad might end up being even cheaper for some Indians, since it is relatively expensive to stay at a hotel in India. ‘The other reason people travel to countries like Sri Lanka, Thailand, Singapore or Malaysia is the cost of accommodation. The total cost of a holiday in south-east Asia can be half the price of going to somewhere like Goa’, says Amitava.

The new Indian middle class (‘middle class’ denoting a much lower level of income than it would in the West) is not immune to concerns about aviation’s impact on the environment. But excitement at the possibilities opened up by fast and affordable travel far outweighs such worries. ‘People can see the advantages’, says Rebecca.

Budget airlines have their drawbacks, of course. Some people call it ‘cattle class’. The service is often terrible and there are few fallbacks if flights get cancelled. Staff are paid badly and training is often only to the minimum standards required to fly. Indeed, Amitava tells me he’s gone back to the established carriers, taking advantage of the low prices they offer for those who book way in advance – at least they’ll get you on to another flight if things go wrong. Yet those low, advanced-purchase prices are another indication of the broader impact of the no-frills carriers on flying in India.

Whatever the problems of no-frills flying, the passion for flying in India is palpable. British eco-activists seem to have failed to prevent Heathrow from going ahead with its third runway, and they will certainly fail to stop the masses of the developing world – in India, China and Latin America – from taking to the skies. Everyone wants this opportunity. The passion with which Amitava and Rebecca talk about the freedom of being able to fly around their own country suggests they are in no mood to be grounded any time soon.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. He is currently in India with the Institute of Ideas’ Debating Matters Competition.

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill unearthed the class hatred driving the anti-aviation Stansted protests. He also said cheap flights should be a cause for rejoicing. Nathalie Rothschild slammed Virgin Atlantic’s attempt to shame passengers into onboard eco-penance. She joined the not-so-happy-campers at the Heathrow protest before meeting the radical Gatwick campers who demanded freedom of movement. Or read more at spiked issues Environment and Tourism and travel.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech

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