With the inauguration of direct daily flights between Hong Kong and Mumbai, India's economic hub, Jet Airways has taken another big step in extending its burgeoning international network and confirming its status as one of the world's fastest-growing privately owned airlines. The launch of the new route coincides with the company's 15th anniversary, and is viewed by many in the industry as a foreshadowing of further expansion and the introduction of additional flights linking India to China and other worldwide destinations. 'We believe that there is great potential in the India-Hong Kong sector for an airline such as ours given the large volume of both business and leisure travel between the two financial capitals,' said Naresh Goyal, the founder and chairman of Jet Airways. 'Also, Hong Kong is the only viable regional aviation hub in South China for the foreseeable future.' Mr Goyal said that after weighing up the various options, the company concluded that Hong Kong was the obvious 'launch pad' for a push into the China market and East Asia generally. The city already commanded a leading position as an established centre for international air travel and cargo handling, with a high standard of facilities and connectivity. And it was still a true gateway to Southern China, allowing easy access to the Pearl River Delta and beyond for tourists and business travellers alike. Statistics confirm this, showing that India was already one of Hong Kong's largest trading partners, with the exchange of goods and services valued at around US$10billion a year. Figures also confirm that last year about 310,000 visitors travelled from India to Hong Kong - an increase of about 8per cent on the previous year - and passenger numbers on this route are expected to reach more than 600,000 annually within a few years. In part to cope with the huge demand for direct flights to and from Hong Kong, the Indian government made good on its promise to open up both the domestic and international aviation sectors. When this happened, Jet Airways was the first private airline based in India to take advantage of the new opportunities to operate flights on international routes. 'With a new air services agreement recently signed between Hong Kong and India allowing for 35 weekly flights by both sides, we plan to take full advantage of the more liberalised regime,' Mr Goyal said. The new Hong Kong route is served by an Airbus A330-200, which carries about 220 passengers in premier and economy classes. To offer 'optimum convenience' for business travellers and tourists, flights leave in the early evening and arrive in Mumbai before midnight local time. Flights from Mumbai arrive in Hong Kong in the morning, designed to fit in well with the normal business day. 'It is our ongoing strategy to link Mumbai with all key international financial capitals,' Mr Goyal said. 'We will inaugurate a new Mumbai-Shanghai-San Francisco route this June, as well as a direct New Delhi-Hong Kong flight later this year. And we plan to extend this service to Tokyo in the near future.' Plans for the next few years also include steady expansion through linking more cities in India - already served by the company's domestic network - with destinations in Asia, Europe and North America. Some long-haul services will connect via the hub now established in Brussels, and the company expects 'many others' to follow in due course. 'Building on our first-mover advantage, we will continue to aggressively expand our business and coverage of international markets,' Mr Goyal said. '[While in India], the thriving economy, expanding opportunities, and the country's unique cultural and natural heritage are attracting increasing numbers of investors and visitors.' He explained that the company's upbeat projections were based on the fact that, in recent years, more and more Indian companies had become part of the global economy. The country was maintaining a high rate of GDP growth of between 8.5per cent and 9.5per cent per annum, and incomes were rising rapidly. This would continue to boost demand for both international and domestic flights, particularly among the new middle classes, who had higher disposable incomes or a greater need to travel for business purposes. In fact, forecasts indicated that the overall airline sector in India was likely to see expansion of about 20 per cent a year. Inbound travellers attracted by India's unique tourist sites and experiences, and businesspeople pursuing new trade or investment opportunities, would ensure that passenger numbers kept climbing. 'Ever more bilateral air agreements are being concluded with other countries,' Mr Goyal said. From his point of view, a big part of Jet Airways' success to date had been its commitment to making the best international standards the benchmark for everything from fleet operations and in-flight service to on-time performance, ground services and staff training. It had also been a corporate policy to operate a 'young' fleet, which included Boeing 777-300 ERs and the 'next generation' Boeing 737-800. This made it easier to achieve lower fuel consumption, a tighter cost structure and a high level of reliability. Taken together, these factors had a significant impact on service quality and, therefore, the positive perceptions of passengers. The company also pays close attention to monitoring recognised measures of performance. Among these are the airline's 'technical despatch reliability', a stringent set of operational safety standards, and a sophisticated yield management system that makes it possible to track detailed load factors and, thereby, to minimise costs and maximise revenue. Nevertheless, Mr Goyal noted that success in the aviation sector ultimately came down to one thing: 'We firmly believe that people are the airline's principal asset and that success will only come through creating an environment where people are nurtured and developed.' For this reason, the company puts emphasis on its training programmes not only to demonstrate a commitment to quality, but to enhance the safety and comfort of every passenger. This basic philosophy has also led to the progressive introduction of a wide range of value-added services to make things just that little bit more convenient or enjoyable for customers. These now include information on actual flight status sent by SMS, an extensive selection of in-flight entertainment options, and an array of holiday packages built around the exciting destinations covered by the airline's network. There are also features and facilities such as online check-in, extra baggage allowances, and priority stand-by schemes. In addition, the Jet Privilege frequent-flyer programme has a whole host of mileage redemption and membership privileges, which are growing all the time. '[We were] welcomed into the Asia Miles family on May1, thus greatly expanding customers' travel options to India,' Mr Goyal said. Besides partnerships with other airlines, there are agreements with hotel groups such as the Radisson, the Marriott and the Mandarin Oriental, with credit card companies, and with various upmarket consumer brands. 'These partnerships radically enhance the value of the Jet Privilege programme, making it more versatile, engaging and rewarding for members,' Mr Goyal said.