Recession hit air traffic to US, Britain

MUMBAI: The global economic downturn not only caused heartburn in India, it also dampened Indians' newfound wanderlust. Encumbered by the difficult times, Indians reduced their travel to and from various international destinations, but not all.

While flights operating between India and countries like the US, UK, Singapore, Sri Lanka suffered between 2008 and 2010, a few places like Dubai and Hong Kong witnessed a surge in passenger traffic. Of these, Hong Kong was the biggest beneficiary; air traffic between India and the bustling Chinese city grew by 128% in 2008-09 and by 68% in 2009-10. During these years, air traffic to most other countries fell by an average of 10%, according to data released by the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) on Saturday.

Experts say the reason Hong Kong has suddenly found favour with fliers is the bilateral agreement signed between the special administrative region and India, which has allowed Cathay Pacific to operate more flights between the two destinations.

The DGCA statistics also show that Indian airlines are slowly catching up with their foreign carriers on international routes. Though foreign airlines continue to ferry the majority of passengers to and from India, fliers have somewhat warmed up to Indian carriers in the last five years. In 2004-05, 71% of passengers flying between India and other destination chose foreign carriers; by 2009-10, that number had fallen to 66%.

"With airlines like IndiGo scheduled to launch international operations this year, Indian carriers will continue to catch up," said a top airline official.

Yet, airlines like Air India, Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines are several nautical miles behind their foreign rivals like Emirates, Air Arabia and Qatar Airways when it comes to plain-vanilla numbers. In 2009-10, only 1.1 crore passengers flew Indian carriers on international routes compared to the 2.1 crore who chose foreign carriers.

The official warned against making a linear comparison between domestic and foreign airlines. "One must remember that these numbers do not make a distinction between, say, a passenger flying to Singapore and the one flying to New York," he said.

In the last five years, airports like Doha and Dubai have emerged as major air hubs between India and the world. So, of the 2.1 crore passengers who flew to and from India on foreign carriers in 2009-10, a huge percentage would have transited at Doha or Dubai.

"What you have is a passenger flying, say, the Mumbai-Dubai-New York route on Emirates and another flying Mumbai-Dubai on Air India Express. In the statistics it will show as one passenger each for an Indian carrier and the foreign carrier. But there is a world of difference here," says the official.

It is no surprise then that Dubai did not witness a fall in air traffic. Numbers flying between India and Dubai have maintained a steady growth rate of 26% in the last five years. The only other destinations that have managed to have such a steady growth are those in the Gulf.