The airport is a shame and the economy is in a shambles, but Calcutta may yet go places.

A 30 per cent surge in flier traffic and a new regime’s promise to reverse a history of stunted industrial growth have put the city back on the radar of international and domestic airlines that were wary of a touchdown in erstwhile Left territory.

Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines is set to start operations on July 12 and SilkAir of Singapore will take off from the city for the first time on August 1. Doha-based Qatar Airways has announced daily flights to Doha from July 28.

GoAir, promoted by the Wadia family that owns Bombay Dyeing, is conducting a survey to find out the feasibility of rolling out its services in the city.

Jet Airways and IndiGo, which already have bases in the city, are planning to consolidate their presence by creating hubs for international operations to Southeast Asia and the Gulf.

Top officials of SilkAir, a wing of Singapore Airlines, met Mamata Banerjee at Writers’ Buildings on Thursday after announcing the launch of operations in the city.

“Thank you very much, chief minister. We are delighted to begin our flights (from Calcutta),” Marvin Tan, the chief executive of SilkAir, told Mamata during a 15-minute meeting from 3pm. “There is potential for growth in business, which will encourage growth in air traffic as well,” he said. 
For Mamata, the slew of new air connections is the best start she could have hoped for after sending out signals to all and sundry about her government’s commitment to industry.

“Daily flights to Singapore from August 1 is great news. I will be present at the launch of the inaugural flight,” she said.

Mamata, who aspires to turn Calcutta into London, might be hoping British Airways and a few more international carriers follow suit. Between 2005 and 2009, as many as six international airlines — including British Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Royal Jordanian Airlines and Gulf Air — had pulled out of the city citing losses.

“Premium seats, which sustain international airlines, would go unsold as corporate traffic was consistently thin. The global recession hastened the departure of some airlines,” said a member of a civil aviation study group.

So what has Bengal done in these years — and the Mamata government in three weeks — to revive interest in the city as the air hub of the east?

Airlines officials said more people flew to and from the city in the last fiscal than in any previous year. Political change has added to the feel-good factor, prompting even the previously reluctant players to test the turf.

“We are expecting a big jump in corporate travel over the next year, which should make operations more sustainable,” Anil Punjabi, the chairman (east) of the Travel Agents’ Federation of India, said.

SilkAir will have four flights to Singapore a week — Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday — while parent company Singapore Airlines will reduce its flight frequency from four to three days. Together, they will provide fliers one flight to and from Singapore each day of the week.

Hainan Airlines’s thrice-a-week flight to and from Shenzhen will benefit business travellers the most. Shenzhen is a 45-minute drive from Hong Kong and is part of the largest special economic zone in China.

“The potential for growth in business in Bengal is one of the factors for our debut in Calcutta. We are also looking at a growth in leisure traffic,” Li Li, the general manager of the city branch of Hainan Airlines, said.

Officials of Jet Airways, which has several daily flights to and from the city, said the airline’s plan to turn Calcutta into the hub of operations to Southeast Asia and the Gulf was driven by demand in the east.

“Fliers from the Northeast, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Nepal will be our targets. But the hub can only be created if there is enough market growth within Calcutta as well, which we are positive about,” the official said. 



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