American to Inaugurate its First Flight From USA to India Tonight

When American Airlines inaugurates its first flight from the USA to India tonight, it will be the longest route that the world's largest airline has ever flown.

The daily non-stop Chicago O'Hare-to-Delhi service is scheduled to take as long as 16 hours on a Boeing 777. In establishing the new air service, the 75-year-old carrier learned that it's more complicated to link Chicago with the Indian city than to fly between, for instance, New York and Los Angeles.

In four frantic months to prepare for the launching of Flight 292, the carrier confronted obstacles such as restrictive labor contracts, slow-moving diplomacy and profound cultural differences, including dietary restrictions.

Growing segment

The ultralong, non-stop-flight segment is growing faster than any other distance category. An average of 21 daily flights this month are 15 hours or longer, and most involve a U.S. airport, according to a USA TODAY analysis of OAG data from Back Aviation Solutions.

Henry Joyner, American's senior vice president of planning, says the India route has been a priority for Fort Worth-based American since the government granted authority to fly it earlier this year. Meeting the needs of Indian customers turned out to be one of several challenges. The airline could have racked up a large consulting bill to figure out its target market but instead obtained free advice from its employees. Members of the Indian Employees Resource Group, about 150 people mostly in management and information technology, advised executives on everything from promotions to cuisine.

Flight promotion

The group influenced marketing, for instance, by recommending promotion of the flights at India Independence Day festivals last August in Chicago and New York.

American also devised a menu mostly of northern Indian food that excludes beef and pork in deference to Indian travelers. Hindus do not eat beef, and Muslims do not eat pork. The menus also contain more vegetarian choices than usual, such as the first-class option of channa masala, a traditional dish with chickpeas, biryani rice, spinach and mushrooms.

"This group of employees, they know the market," says Rekha Rao, who grew up in Delhi and works in American's corporate planning department.

American is relying on corporate travelers to fill its premium seats and largely ethnic Indian travelers to fill coach class. U.S. companies that do a lot of business in India have been seeking the service, says Don Casey, who heads international planning for American.

Visiting abroad

The new service was timed to start at the beginning of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, when many Indians living abroad return home to visit.

Other challenges presented potential deal breakers for American along the way. Seasonal winds, for instance, require American to fly over the North Pole from February through October to save fuel. From November through January, the flight will fly over western Russia and northern Europe.

But U.S. airlines didn't have fly-over rights for Russia. Obtaining them last month involved high-level talks between governments.

The flight's length also forced American to navigate around pilots' labor rules. The existing pilots contract capped scheduled duty time at 18 hours, adequate to accommodate pilots on what becomes American's second-longest flight -- New York John F. Kennedy to Tokyo Narita. But the cap didn't leave enough cushion to guarantee that pilots could complete the Delhi-Chicago flight.

The negotiated fix: The maximum duty time was stretched to 20 hours, and American agreed to staff the flight with two pairs of pilots, union spokesman Gregg Overman says. One pair will sit in first class while the other pair flies the plane. They'll switch midway through the flight.

In April, the U.S. and Indian governments officially dismantled 50-year-old laws limiting competition. By summer, Continental Airlines and American had announced non-stop service. Continental inaugurated its Newark, N.J.-Delhi service on Nov.1, marking the first time a non-stop was flown between the two countries.

Until now, Asian and European carriers have dominated the U.S.- Indian air market -- about 2 million passengers a year. Last year, for instance, Delta and Northwest flew just 14% of U.S.-India passengers, according to an analysis by Sabre Airline Solutions. Air India and Lufthansa, meanwhile, flew 36%.

Sabre Airline Solutions analyst Vijay Bathija expects that U.S. carriers will increase their share of the market as they launch non-stop services to India.

Differing views

Non-stop service means passengers such as Bob Boehnlein of Indianapolis can bypass three- to four-hour layovers often "at some awful time of day."

"The convenience for a non-stop to India is a huge benefit," says Boehnlein, a technology executive.

But Satadru Sen, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis who returns often to his native India, says success of non-stop flights such as American's is not assured.

Leisure travelers may not want to sit in economy for up to 16 hours and may seek flights with stopovers, he says.

He also says that American's international service usually doesn't measure up with that of the European and Asian airlines.

"Flying with AA is now not very different from flying with Southwest, and nobody in their right mind would want to fly Southwest all the way to India," Sen says.

A frequent flier with American, Sen says he booked his flight this winter with Singapore Airlines even though he'll pay more money.---Contributing: Barbara Hansen

More flight choices between USA and IndiaTravelers flying between the USA and India are finding a broadening array of choices.CarrierFlights(1)ViaU.S. citiesIndia citesAir India28Frankfurt, London, ParisNew York, Chicago, Los AngelesMumbai, Delhi, AhmedabadLufthansa25 Frankfurt 15 cities Bangalore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, DelhiNorthwest7AmsterdamMinneapolisMumbaiDelta14ParisNew YorkMumbai, ChennaiContinental7Non-stopNewark, N.J.DelhiAmerican7Non-stopChicagoDelhi1 -- Weekly flights, each waySources: Sabre Airline Solutions, USA TODAY research

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