Once upon a time, air passengers in India had a choice of just two airlines: Air India for long haul trips and Indian Airlines for short domestic hops. Seats were limited, schedules were erratic, and ticket prices, set by the state, were sky-high. It was only in 1994 that the government agreed to liberalise the domestic air travel market, opening the door to India’s first private airlines.
Two decades later and departure boards are filling up with new flights by India’s burgeoning private carriers. Just one of these airlines, Indigo, now ferries nearly three times as many domestic passengers as merged state carriers Air India and India Airlines. New routes are opening up almost daily and the domestic air travel market is growing at the astonish rate of 20% per year.
India is now gripped by an aircraft-buying frenzy, with maker Boeing predicting sales of 2100 new planes to Indian carriers in the next two decades. The most prolific purchasers of new aircraft are India’s expanding low-cost airlines, who work on a business model of low per-seat prices and stripped back in-flight service but huge passenger volume.
There have been winners and losers in India’s aviation boom. Founded by India’s biggest brewery, Kingfisher Airlines grew to become one of India’s biggest carriers, before a combination of over ambitious expansion and falling market rates for seats forced the airline into a downward spiral in 2012.
Some though feel a lingering nostalgia for the days when the only options were Air India, Indian Airlines, or the train. While cancellations were commonplace, and many aircraft were museum pieces, there was a reassuring familiarity about the airlines’ people-heavy operations and cheerful bowing maharaja mascot.