Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Turkish Airlines flies to seven Indian cities. In fact, it operates flights to two gateway cities, Delhi and Mumbai, and connects passengers to five others through a codeshare with Air India.
For a brief moment in 2008, Delta Air Lines Inc. connected Atlanta to Mumbai with a 17-hour marathon flight, helping travelers save time by avoiding connections — and the possibility of delays and lost luggage.
The local Indian community responded enthusiastically, and the state of Georgia sent a trade mission on the inaugural journey, touting the possibility of opening an office in the country.
But what the airlines giveth, they often taketh away.
Just a year later, Delta moved the nonstop Mumbai flight back to New York, leaving Atlantans only with one-stop connections through Europe. It was later canceled altogether.
Members of the Indian community at the time scratched their heads, wondering why such a key segment of the metro Atlanta population wasn’t being prioritized by their hometown airline.
This week, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta international Airport’s air-service manager is traveling in India with leaders from the Atlanta mayor’s office, Georgia Department of Economic Development and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau in an effort to bring back that lost connection.
“Our goal is to establish direct air service between Indian stakeholders and those in Atlanta which will also in turn spur further foreign direct investment to this region,” airport spokesman Reese McCranie said in an email. Global Atlanta reported in March that the airport would lead such a delegation.
The group has met so far with Air India, Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, India’s Ministry of Civil Aviation, Tourism and External Relations, and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
The move comes the same week two carriers with extensive service to India’s interior promoted new service to Atlanta.
Turkish Airlines, which launched its nonstop flight between Istanbul and Atlanta May 16, serves two cities directly with Air India codeshares helping passengers reach five others, while Qatar Airways, which will link Atlanta with Doha on June 1 reaches 12 Indian destinations, according to its website.
By all appearances, entreaties by local Indian leaders asking the airport to seek nonstop service to India or to woo Persian Gulf carriers with convenient transfer flights are now being heeded.
It’s not as though Delta has completely abandoned India. In December it announced a new codeshare agreement with India’s Jet Airways to expand access to two cities via Amsterdam through its KLM joint venture.
And Delta travelers can still use Air France’s India network through Paris. Virgin Atlantic, another Delta partner which flies from Atlanta to London, announced a similar codeshare deal with Jet Airways a few months earlier.
But many who have traveled on Middle Eastern carriers prefer what they see as more geographically direct routes, upscale service, shorter connection times and deeper access to India’s interior cities.
Qatar flies to places like Nagpur, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram directly from Doha in addition to serving gateways like Delhi and Mumbai.
Akbar Al Baker, Qatar Airways’ outspoken CEO, said in a press conference this week that Atlantans have been “craving” an airline that would bring its level of access and customer focus to Atlanta. The Indian community is a primary target, he said.
“You would be very surprised to hear how many letters of support and appreciation we received from the Indian community living in and around Atlanta,” he said in response to a question from Global Atlanta.
Qatar is running an introductory fare sale through May 22 that makes a variety of Indian cities accessible with one stop from Atlanta at less than $800 in coach.
Of course, Mr. Al Baker promised that those fares would go up, but it’s the Gulf carriers’ ability to slash prices that lies at heart of their bitter ongoing dispute with Delta, which said this week it would axe its sponsorship of the Fox Theatre over the venue’s decision to rent a ballroom to Qatar Airways for a launch party featuring JLo.
Delta alleges the Gulf carriers are undergirded by financial support from their home governments, allowing them to launch routes on a whim, with no regard for their commercial viability. Qatar rejects the allegations and says Delta, which has posted record profits in recent years, is being “greedy.”
The dispute was already affecting Delta’s decisions before it became a public lobbying effort on the part of three U.S. airlines, which formed the Partnership for Fair and Open Skies last year.
Years prior, Delta told Georgia Indo-American Chamber representatives pleading for a nonstop flight that the Gulf carriers were making things difficult from a pricing perspective. Delta has also blamed Air India’s Ex-Im bank financing on Boeing 777s for Delta’s decision to pull out of the country at a cost of 1,000 American jobs.
Customers, however, seem to care less bout the politics and more about the kind of service, prices and access the new flights will provide.
Delta has “disappointed us by not scheduling any direct flights to India and literally left the segment open to competition,” says Unmesh Mishra, who heads up India’s Larsen & Toubro Infotech operations in Atlanta. “As you know they stopped Dubai route as well,” he added, noting that it would be “ultra exciting” if Emirates were to join Qatar Airways in Atlanta.
Ani Agnihotri, who organizes the U.S. India Business Summit in Atlanta every year, says the new flights will definitely draw interest from the community.
“Competition is good for consumers — and someone like me who travels to India five or six times a year,” Mr. Agnihotri said.
For Aventure Aviation, a Peachtree City-based supplier of parts to airlines including both Qatar and Turkish, speed to market in this part of the world is paramount.
“With quicker access to the major international hubs of Istanbul and Doha, we will be able to supply aircraft spares faster to our customers in the Middle East, Africa, Indian subcontinent and beyond and level the playing field with our competitors based in Europe who have taken advantage of their geographic location and availability of a network of flights,” Mr. Faruqi told Global Atlanta.
Lalit Dhingra, president of Indian IT giant NIIT’s Atlanta-based Americas division, agrees on the competition front. He says he often flies on Delta partners through Amsterdam but that the service on Qatar Airways and other Middle Eastern carriers like Emirates and Etihad — the two UAE airlines Delta has also railed against for taking subsidies — is much better.
The business-class prices through Amsterdam are also relatively high, Mr. Dhingra says, though he will check out connection times before making any changes. Qatar says it can get travelers through Doha on a new plane in as little as 30 minutes, faster than any other airport in the world.
But nonstop service could change the competitive landscape in his view.
“The best way for Delta is to start direct service to Indian cities. I don’t think anyone else can beat that irrespective of the price. If I get direct flight to New Delhi from Atlanta, who cares what the price and service is? I can’t comment on Turkish as I don’t think it will be much different than Delta via Europe,” he said.
Nagesh Singh, the consul general of India in Atlanta, said Qatar’s arrival in Atlanta is welcome given the options it provides but that a nonstop connection is warranted given the burgeoning investment, tourism and educational connections between the South and his country. More than 120,00 persons of Indian origin reside in Georgia alone. Zoom out to the regional level, and that number is about 400,000, he said.
“We do have popular demand from this region for having a direct flight to India. There are direct flights to India from New York, Chicago and San Francisco, and there is no reason why we should not have one from Atlanta,” Mr. Singh wrote to Global Atlanta in a statement. “With the ever-growing and multifaceted linkages between Atlanta, the Southeast U.S. and India it is but natural that demand for direct flight connections are growing louder and louder not just from Atlanta, Ga., but neighboring states like Alabama, Florida and Tennessee where Indian-American communities are based.”
He added: “Air connection is a strategic linkage which has to be looked beyond very short term economic calculations.”
Lufthansa, the German carrier, has long operated successfully from Atlanta, connecting passengers to five cities in India via its nonstop route to Frankfurt.