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Obama state dinner with Indian PM Singh: a harbinger for increased air service between US and India?

Tourists walk in front on India's parliament in New Delhi, one of two Indian gateways to the US.
Tourists walk in front on India's parliament in New Delhi, one of two Indian gateways to the US.
Credit: Robert Schrader

Speculation is running wild about the potential implications of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Washington for Barack Obama's first State Dinner. Cooperation on the War in Afghanistan? Further progress on making peace in Kashmir, over which the world's largest democracy maintains a control dispute with Pakistan? More open economic policies?

How about increased air service?

In addition to services offered by India's national carrier Air India, which serves the New York City, Chicago and Washington, D.C. metropolitan areas from its Mumbai and New Delhi hubs, two U.S. airlines currently serve the subcontinent: American Airlines, to Delhi, from Chicago O'Hare and Continental Airlines, to Mumbai and Delhi, from its Newark, NJ hub. While Delta Air Lines still serves Mumbai one-stop via Amsterdam, it abandoned its highly lauded New York (later Atlanta)-Mumbai route, which saw the debut of its 777-200LR aircraft in April 2008. Discontinued in late September, the route clocked in at 17:55 westbound and was marred by low yields. Only a slight number of full-fare Business class passengers utilized the service, whose length and aircraft utilization placed heavy cost burdens on the World's largest airline.

Proponents of new service between the two nations suggest two possible gateways: Washington, DC's Dulles Airport (on United) and Houston's George Bush Intercontinental, either on Continental, who operates a hub at the airport, or Air India, who has been rumored to start service to the Texan energy capital for years. According to a New York Times report from March, which utilized data from the 2000 census, Washington, DC, which is already served by Air India to Delhi, has a foreign-born Indian population in excess of 80,000, while Houston sits a few spots lower on the list at around 41,000. Additionally, Air India is set to join Star Alliance in 2010. United, which operates a hub at Dulles, is a founding member of the airline partnership.

While it is expected that the number of foreign-born Indians inhabiting US cities has increased significantly (and across the board) in the near decade since the last census, many state that Washington's current one-stop (via New York) to New Delhi is adequate to serve both its populations as well as the diplomatic links which are sure to increase following the aforementioned dinner. Additionally, while Houston has been rumored to receive service from India's national carrier since at least 2005 and publicly acknowledged talks with the airline in a 2008 brief on its airport website, many argue that insufficient business ties exist between the US energy capital and any of India's major cities to generate profitable service. Some, however, refute that Houston, the nation's fourth largest metropolitan area, is a gaping hole in Air India's international route map. Still others hold that Continental should take advantage of Delta's recent Atlanta pulldown and leverage the large Indian population of the southern United States.

Whether any of this speculation is rooted in fact or false hope is anybody's guess, but one thing is for sure: traffic between the United States and India will probably grow as does the population of Indians in US cities. Diplomatic ties, too, should continue to flower, so the question is not if additional service between the two countries will begin, but when and by whom. Stay tuned to the Austin International Travel Examiner for more news when and if it becomes available.

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