MIAMI — In the wee chilly morning hours on December 2, Air India opened its fourth destination in the United States with the touchdown of Boeing 777-200LR registered VT-ALG at San Francisco International (SFO). The mighty long-range triple seven flew 16 hours 31 minutes nonstop from Delhi (DEL) kicking off the first (and so-far, only) nonstop flight between India and the western United States.

As one of the longest flight in the world, it was a momentous occasion for Air India. The airline celebrated with the usual pomp and ceremony in spite of an early 2:35 am departure from Delhi.

SFO welcomed the arrival with a reception and a ribbon cutting ceremony of its own. Ed Lee, mayor of San Francisco, proclaimed December 2nd as Air India Day in San Francisco. “By creating the first-ever nonstop service between San Francisco and Delhi, Air India has united two great cultural and economic centers of the world…I fully expect this new service to be a success,” exclaimed Mayor Lee.

SFO was long-time coming for Air India. Rumors of Air India starting service to SFO started around 2000 and went off-and-on for the next 15 years. It made sense. The San Francisco-Oakland-San Jose area (population of 6.1 million) is home to 237,000 Indians according to 2010 Census data compiled by data analytical firm ProxmityOne. Many are attracted to jobs in the high tech industry and start-ups located there. But rumors never materialized into reality after the .com crash and downturn of the airline industry after 9/11. In the mean time, European airlines used their established positions and became airlines of preferred for travel to India.

The popular “Bangalore Express” refers to Lufthansa’s link between tech-heavy cities of SFO and Bangalore (BLR) via a fast (less than two hour) connection in Frankfurt (FRA). Demonstrating a strong demand, SFO was an early destination for the Lufthansa A380. To further strengthen the airline’s position in the San Francisco Bay Area, Lufthansa recently set its sights 33-miles south and announced A340-300 service from San Jose (SJC) – the heart of Silicon Valley – to FRA starting in May 2016 operated by the airline’s low-cost Cityline division in hopes of capturing the leisure market.

In June 2008, Jet Airways became the first Indian airline to SFO with service from Mumbai (BOM) via Shanghai-Pudong (PVG). Despite having an excellent on-board product and a great reputation, the airline ended service at SFO short seven months later in January 2009 citing low performance on the route. The early morning 1:30 am arrival and 3:30 am departure into/out of PVG from SFO was poorly timed, scuttling any hope of attracting demand for Shanghai on either end of this flight.

Emirates started service to Dubai (DXB) from SFO in Dec 2008 using the 777-200LR. One year later, aircraft was upgraded to the 777-300ER. Emirates quickly established itself as the airline to beat by combining new airplanes, great service, attractive fares, and well-timed flights to India. It became the airline of choice for many Indians in the Bay Area. The airline further increased its capacity in late 2014 by flying the now-ubiquitous double-decker A380 to SFO.


Not to be outdone, Etihad joined the party from Abu Dhabi (AUH) in late 2014 returning the distinctive yellow and blue 777-300ERs of Jet Airways back to SFO. In 2013, Etihad purchased 24% equity stake in struggling Jet Airways and the two airlines became strategic partners against the Emirates juggernaut in the Indian market.

With Air India joining Star Alliance in July 2014, choosing SFO to be the airlines’ forth destination in the United States was easy. Not only the San Francisco Bay Area has a large Indian population, SFO is also a Star Alliance hub. In addition to New York-JFK, Air India’s other presence in the U.S. are Newark (EWR) and Chicago-O’Hare (ORD), both Star Alliance Hubs. With feeder possibilities and a loyalty market already established at each hub city, they provide the airline the best chance for traffic and growth.

At SFO, Air India has one very important advantage over all other airlines. It flies nonstop to India. “Nonstop” was emphasized over and over again in the airline’s advertisements. Indeed, early bookings are strong. According to data released by SFO, initial flights are booked at 95% and the inaugural flight from Delhi carried a “full complement of passengers”. In addition, since Air India has a vast domestic network of 52 cities, it has the advantage of giving customers an one-stop, same-airline connection to secondary destinations and small cities within India; something non-Indian airlines can’t offer.


The SFO-DEL route is flown three times per week on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays using the ultra long-range 777-200LR. Between 2007 and 2009, Air India acquired a fleet of eight LRs to fly nonstop between India and the U.S. In order to squeeze every bit of performance out of the LR, these aircraft are configured in a low-density 238 seats configuration (eight First Class, 35 Business Class, and 195 Economy). Ironically, Air India sold off five of the LRs to rival Etihad in 2014, citing high fuel prices rendering these aircraft unprofitable to operate. Having a low-density configuration also exacerbated its unprofitability. Today, only three LRs remain in Air India’s fleet in order to make this nonstop flight possible. With the airline’s board rejecting converting five of the outstanding 787-8 Dreamliners on order to the -9 model – the model capable of flying ultra long range to the U.S. more efficiently than the 777 – Air India is cautiously optimistic about the success of this route with low fuel prices and strong loads.


The Indian market is not confined to Delhi, however. When flight connections are required to other major cities, Air India’s nonstop time saving advantage can quickly be diminished when compared with other airlines. For example, from BLR to SFO, due to a long layover in DEL, there is essentially no difference in total travel time between Air India and Emirates. Further, total travel time on Lufthansa’s “Bangalore Express” is only 50 minutes slower to SFO.

Poor connections can easily be overcome with better hub scheduling. However, a not-so-good reputation cannot be fixed easily. Anecdotally, Air India is not a preferred airline with most travelers. By having a nonstop flight to India, the scale definitely gets tipped to Air India’s favor. However, the airline will have to prove itself by convincing travellers with an efficient, reliable, and on-time operation along with great service. Only time will tell whether Air India will be successful in doing so.