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Indian PM Modi: Air India to Connect San Francisco, Delhi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as he leaves SAP Center in San Jose moments after announcing a new Air India flight between San Jose and Delhi. (Photo by Sharon Simonson)

By Sharon Simonson

In his last seconds on stage at the SAP Center in San Jose on Sept. 27, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a terse announcement: beginning Dec. 2, India national airline Air India would begin flying directly between New Delhi and San Francisco International Airport.

It was another breakthrough moment in the India-San Francisco Bay Area relationship. Other U.S. metropolitan areas with large Asian-Indian populations including New York and Chicago already have non-stop Air India flights, said Sanjay Mehra, chief executive of Fremont’s Low Fare Travels. Though the Bay Area flight had been the subject of travel-industry discussion for a time, it was not available to book until after the prime minister spoke in San Jose, he said.

“It is a clear example of how the globe is changing, and how the business ties will get stronger between New Delhi and Silicon Valley,” Mehra said. “It’s kind of a good signal, a very good stepping stone and achievement.

“People have been dreaming about this flight for a long time.”

More than 125,000 people identify themselves as Asian Indians in Silicon Valley while fewer than 15,000 San Francisco residents do, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But SFO remains a better match with North India’s Delhi than Normal Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport, Mehra said. Much of the Indian population in Silicon Valley hails from Southern India, where India’s information technology industry is concentrated. For those travelers, a direct flight via Dehli still leaves another leg to the country’s south, making a Delhi flight less competitive against other existing choices.

At the same time, SFO has stronger connections than San Jose to the East Coast and other West Coast and Western U.S. cities, including Vancouver, Seattle and Portland, Ore. New Delhi’s airport is the only international airport serving as much as 30 percent of India’s northern population, giving it a draw on tens of millions of potential travelers.

For international travelers inbound to India, Delhi is the gateway to other North Indian metropolitan areas by road, including Punjab state, Mehra said. In the Bay Area, SFO will draw Indian-bound travelers from the Sacramento and Fresno areas as well. Alameda County also has 80,000 Asian-Indian residents, according to the Census Bureau.

“They (Air India) want to capture both the Indian market and the American market,” the travel executive said. The new flight will operate three times a week: Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The airline should be able to serve close to 1,700 passengers a week to start, about 850 people each way.

The route will mark the first direct flights between Delhi and the Bay Area and Air India’s fourth U.S. route: New York, New Jersey and Chicago have existing direct flights, according to Airline Industry Today, which also has published the news but without naming a source. The airline itself has posted no news release on its website and had not responded to a press query sent yesterday.

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