Mumbai flight gets inaugural send-offContinental begins new route with party

Jaymini Patel was amazed Monday night as she approached her gate at Newark Liberty International Airport for her first flight home to visit her family in India in two years.

A raucous Indian party was in full swing behind a phalanx of security personnel at Gate 90. It was an inaugural celebration for Continental Airlines' first nonstop flight to Mumbai, India, complete with sitar and tabla players, traditional dancers, a henna artist and a lavish buffet of Indian food.

"It blew my mind," said Patel, 30, who works in human resources for Sumas, an information-technology company in Edison. "It was a great welcome. I felt like I was already in India."

Continental Airlines has been courting the Indian diaspora in the Northeast since 2005, when it started nonstop service to Delhi from Newark.

Ticket sales to New Jersey's community of 257,000 Asian Indians will contribute to Continental's success with the route; but the most important source of revenue will be the business travelers from northern New Jersey who are very interested in saving at least four hours and avoiding a stop in Europe, said Robert Mann, an airline industry analyst and consultant, in Port Washington, N.Y.

"Mumbai is the business capital of India, which is the right place to be, and India is one of the world's most important emerging markets, second only to China," Mann said.

Delta and United also have nonstop flights to India from Chicago and Atlanta, but Continental has been the most aggressive in international growth of domestic carriers over the past two years, Mann said.

Mumbai will be Continental's 30th trans-Atlantic route.

At 6 p.m., Jeff Smisek, president of Continental Airlines, made welcoming remarks that drew applause from the passengers, when he noted the auspicious date of their arrival, the birthday of Mahatma Gandhi, the late political and spiritual leader of India.

Then Smisek slipped off his shoes and participated in a traditional puja ceremony for success and safety in front of a shrine to the elephant-headed god Ganesh conducted by Pravinchandra Maheta, a Hindu priest from Parsipanny.

In deference to the setting, the coconut used in the ceremony was broken with a hammer, instead of being flung onto the floor.

"I was surprised and amused to see the ceremony and the celebration," said Sunil Gottipati, 35, who lives in Princeton and works in emerging markets for the Princeton University endowment. "I don't see something like this very much unless it is at an Indian gathering. In India, the ceremony is more cultural than religious, this one seemed a little deeper, not just window dressing."

Gottipati, who travels to India several times a year for business, had the choice of flying from Philadelphia or Newark, but chose to try the nonstop flight.

Adding a new nonstop destination in India for business travelers is especially significant because it is so difficult to travel within India, Gottipati said.

"The airports aren't connected, like in Mumbai, you have to drive 20 minutes to get to a domestic airport," Gottipati said. "That's why I like to fly directly to where I am going."

Continental will initially operate four flights a week to Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport until Oct. 28, when it will begin daily flights. It will fly its largest aircraft, the Boeing 777-200, on the route until it accepts delivery of Boeing 787 Dreamliners that are on order, Smisek said.

Flights to Mumbai also will have Indian cultural touches on board, such as ethnic food and a prohibition on beef, which is culturally taboo. The pre-flight safety videos will be available in Hindi, and in a nod to Bollywood - India's version of Hollywood - which is centered in Mumbai, the aircraft's entertainment system will offer more than 200 movies, many available in Hindi and English or with Hindi or English subtitles.

Continental CEO Smisek, still festooned with rose petals and a red puja mark on his forehead from the earlier ceremony, posed with employees and greeted passengers as they were about to board.

Wearing a bright orange vest, Milton McKenzie, a Continental caterer, took photos with his phone. "I've never seen anything like this," he said.