Boarding passes, please ... for the flight that goes nowhere

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 August, 2007, 12:00am

Stretching his legs in the front row of economy class, Sunil Chaudhury sighs and says he is 'in heaven'. This is the first time he has ever been on a plane.

Two hours later, he is still smiling, though the plane has not taken off. Nor is it ever likely to - it is fixed to the ground by two steel poles and is located nowhere near a runway.

Yet every week hundreds of Indians visit the 280-seat Airbus 300, parked in a marshy field in Dwarka, on the southwest outskirts of New Delhi. After checking their bags and receiving their boarding passes, they climb on board and take their seats. A flight attendant uses the publicaddress system to remind them to fasten their seatbelts. Minutes later a beaming air hostess trundles up the aisle with refreshments.

This singular plane belongs to B. C. Gupta, a former pilot for Indian Airlines. He bought it in 2003 to turn it into a training centre for India's ever-increasing number of flight attendants. But then he remembered how, as a new pilot, he had been flooded with requests from friends and relatives in his remote village in Haryana, northern India, to visit the planes he flew. So Mr Gupta decided to open the plane to the public.

Today, Indians who cannot afford to take a flight can pay 150 rupees (HK$28) for the closest thing to flying without leaving the ground. Their experience is heightened by Dwarka's proximity to Delhi's domestic and international airports: every few minutes a plane takes off with a deafening roar of engines.

'There's so much fascination with flying these days, but most people have never even been on a plane,' said Nimal Jindal, Mr Gupta's wife, who sometimes plays air hostess.

In the past few years, air travel in India has been revolutionised by new, cheap domestic airlines that have made flying accessible to thousands who otherwise would never have been able to fly. Yet only 1 per cent of Indians has ever boarded an aircraft.

For India's airline industry - the fastest-growing in the world - this represents extraordinary potential for future growth. But many Indians never expect to be part of it.

Ashu Arora, for example, a housewife from Gurgaon, south Delhi, has dressed for the occasion as she arrives at the Airbus. Once on board, she gives her seven-year-old daughter, Kayenha, the window seat.

'My father has flown, but no one else in my family has,' Ms Arora says. 'But it's important that my daughter should see what a plane is like.'