Newlywed Virgin has second thoughts

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 July, 2002, 12:00am

Virgin Atlantic is on the verge of pulling out of the South Asian nation because its two flights a week between New Delhi and Heathrow are commercially unviable.

Virgin's flights are part of a code-share agreement with Air India. It is now waiting for a decision from the Indian and British governments on air travel between the two countries before deciding whether to pack its bags.

When Virgin and state-owned Air India married two years ago, the wedding was a typically brash Indian affair, with a dash of chief executive Sir Richard Branson's famed flamboyance. He rode into town on an elephant and danced on the streets with a gaggle of Indian beauties.

The dowry Air India gave the bridegroom was the two slots a week to London that were unused since Air India did not fly every day. In return, Air India, known for its inhospitable and dour in-flight service, hoped that some of Virgin's talents for keeping passengers relaxed, well-fed and lubricated would rub off on it.

Virgin's arrival in India was bad news for British Airways but a godsend for travellers. It meant additional air seats, more choice and cheaper fares.

But Air India is refusing to give Virgin more flights unless it is given more landing slots at Heathrow in return. It wants to increase its present 11 flights a month to Heathrow to 21. India allows British Airways 23 flights.

'We simply want a fair arrangement,' Civil Aviation Minister Syed Shahnawaz Hussain said.

India and Britain held talks on bilateral air services in London last month but failed to find a solution to the impasse. 'We are not against giving more flights to British Airways and Virgin but Britain must reduce the inequality first,' Mr Hussain said.

A final decision is likely only after another round of bilateral talks.