Air India flights to Australia set to resume

High hopes: Air India will resume flights from Delhi to Sydney and Melbourne on Thursday, with the first Dreamliner touching down in Sydney on Friday at 8am.
High hopes: Air India will resume flights from Delhi to Sydney and Melbourne on Thursday, with the first Dreamliner touching down in Sydney on Friday at 8am. Photo: Reuters

After a 16-year hiatus, myriad delays and more than the odd controversy, an Indian aircraft will take off from Indira Gandhi Airport in Delhi this afternoon, turn south-east and head for Australia.

On Thursday Air India resumes direct flights to Australia, flying brand new Dreamliners daily from Delhi to Melbourne and Sydney.

But beyond the long-promised reconnection of Australia and the subcontinent, the flights represent a much-needed fillip for India's beleaguered state-run airline.

Air India's new routes, serviced by its fleet of state-of-the-art Dreamliners, are supposedly the tonic to cure the ills of the loss-making, underperforming fleet.

India's flag carrier has wracked up astronomical losses in past years – it lost $US769 million ($856 million) last financial year, or nearly $US15 million a week, and carries a total debt of $US6 billion – but it is hoped the new super-efficient, high-capacity, long-haul Dreamliners can slowly claw the airline back into the black.

Australia is seen as key to that planned resurgence.

India is Australia's largest source of permanent migrants, with nearly 300,000 Indian-born people living in Australia at the last census. In addition, more than 400,000 Indian students study in the country, the second largest international student group behind the Chinese.

Add to that a burgeoning tourist trade running each way, and Air India is confident the planes will be full, and the route viable long-term.

“Australia has been an underserved market from India. There is a great deal of untapped potential on the India-Australia route, which we will want to capitalise on,” Air India country manager Ravi Bodade said in Australia.

The first flight will leave Delhi on Thursday afternoon local time, arriving at Kingsford Smith just after 8am on Friday morning. It will fly onto Melbourne, landing at about 11am.

Ticket sales for the initial offerings have reportedly been brisk, though not overwhelming, and some passengers might take some time to return to Air India, whose public image has taken a battering in recent years.

Aside from its financial woes, the government carrier has been beset by poor performance numbers, late running planes and high numbers of cancelled flights.

In 2010, an Air India pilot who fell asleep as he landed in Mangalore in southern India overshot the runway and crashed into a jungle valley, killing 158 people.

The next year, Air India was caught up in a nationwide controversy over unlicensed pilots, who had paid bribes to be accredited, flying commercial planes across the country (the scandal was only uncovered when a pilot tried to land a plane nose-first).

And earlier this year, two Air India pilots were suspended for leaving hostesses in charge of an airborne plane while they slept in business class.

Even the supposed saviours of the airline, Boeing's Dreamliner 787s, have been trouble.

Air India initially ordered 27 craft, but long-running factory delays mean they've only now got their hands on seven. Almost as soon as they were delivered, a spate of problems with battery compartments grounded the fleet worldwide.

Then a fire broke out in a rear galley on a Delhi-Kolkata flight. The training of new crews has been slower than expected, too.

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