International airlines like British Airways and Singapore Airlines perhaps became household names in India about a decade or so ago. Aggressive media campaigns by these and other international airlines to capture a part of the huge Indian market meant that people in India became aware of options for flying abroad.

However, many international airlines have been using India as an important point of call for decades. Sample this: British Airways completed 30 years of flying on the Chennai-London route in 2018. Whether a result of colonial ties or business opportunities in India, British Airways first started flying to Chennai in 1988 as a twice-a-week service. Now it operates a daily service to Chennai from London and also flies to four other cities across the country.

SriLankan Airlines, the national carrier of Sri Lanka, marks 25 years in 2018 since it commenced operations to Delhi. Other than Delhi, the airline also flies to Mumbai, Tiruchi, Kochi and Hyderabad, among other cities.

Singapore Airlines will complete 50 years of flying to Chennai in 2020 and the following year it will be Mumbai’s turn to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Mumbai-Singapore route. Singapore Airlines and Silk Air, a sister concern, fly to over 11 cities in India today.

Changing decades

A lot has changed since these airlines first started operations to India. “In 1993, our Colombo-Delhi flight was twice a week. Now we have two flights a day on this sector. The type of aircraft remains the same, an Airbus A-320, although now we operate the Airbus A-321,” Chinthaka Weerasinghe, Manager Northern India, SriLankan Airlines, says.

And, believe it or not, Singapore Airlines did not exist when the Singapore-Chennai route was launched in 1970. David Lim, General Manager, India, for Singapore Airlines, recalls that back then, Malaysia Singapore Airlines flew the route two times a week with a Boeing 707 aircraft. Currently, Singapore Airlines and Silk Air operate 17 times a week between Chennai and Singapore. Singapore Airlines was born in 1972 when the governments of Malaysia and Singapore decided to spilt Malaysia Singapore Airlines.

Lim points out that Singapore Airlines operated to about 20 destinations globally, including Chennai and Mumbai. He feels that these two cities will probably be among the first that the airline started services to with the possible exception of Tokyo, where services started in 1968.

Today, fliers might consider Singapore as being next door but when the Chennai flight started not all flights were non-stop as some stopped in Colombo before terminating in Chennai.

Changing flier profile

Over the decades there has also been a discernible change in the flier profile. According to Robert Williams, Head of Asia Pacific and Middle East Sales, British Airways, “We are seeing a new generation of customers who are now travelling. People will travel further these days for a shorter amount of time. If you go back three decades, possibly more people were travelling for quite longer.”

When the SriLankan Colombo-Delhi flight started, passengers travelling from Delhi were either those visiting the island nation for meeting friends or labourers travelling to look for work.

“Now they are mostly leisure and corporate travellers. We are also seeing a number of passengers upgrading from economy to business on this flight through the ‘bid for a seat’ option that we offer,” Weerasinghe says. The SriLankan official attributes this change in flier profile to the Sri Lankan government promoting tourism in the island nation since early 2000, which has attracted more tourist travel from Delhi. Airline officials claim that almost 80 per cent of the traffic from Delhi is point-to-point between Delhi and Colombo.

This, however, is not the case with British Airways. According to Williams, with British Airways constantly looking to start flights to new points around the globe, Indian customers, including those in Chennai, benefit. “Offering them more direct services from London to North America is always going to have a positive impact for customers sitting in Chennai,” he says.

Providing more options

Of course, moving from a nascent to a fast developing market has also meant that airlines have had to make changes to keep up with demand and competition. According to Williams, the options in the cabin have changed as when BA started flying to Chennai, there were only economy and first class cabins.

“If you go back three decades, I think premium economy, World Traveller Plus didn’t exist. We were the first global airline to introduce these as well as a dedicated cabin on the aircraft for customers who wanted to spend more than in economy but didn’t really want a business class ticket. So much has changed over this period. It’s all positive changes — it’s great for customers and it’s great for us.” According to Lim, the launch of the Singapore Airlines service between Singapore and Chennai changed the habits of Indian air travellers as the airline was the first in the world to offer free food and drinks to its travellers. Today, the airline offers a menu that has changed to keep up with changing tastes.

Adds Williams, “I think customers have become far more technologically savvy and expect airlines to be innovating and investing all the time which is what we have done in some of the ways with Wi-Fi and new technologies.”

Flying is more affordable today

In another positive move, officials of all three airlines agree that in the last few decades air fares have been heading southwards. “Public statistics say that, earlier, people would spend on an air ticket the equivalent of months and months of salary but now flying is a more affordable opportunity for many people,” Williams points out.

Lim feels that the price of air travel has come down with more and more capacity being added. However, even though fares have declined over the decades, SriLankan’s Delhi route remains among the top five global regions to which the carrier operates with competition coming from Tokyo and London, among other destinations. And the fact that British Airways is still operating on the Chennai-London route 30 years later and that too at a greater frequency shows that it has been and still is a profitable sector for the airline.

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