Blow for business as Air India halts flights from Birmingham
Vital economic links between Birmingham and India have been dealt a hammer blow after it emerged that Air India is to pull the plug on its hugely popular service linking the region to the “golden city” of Amritsar.
Business leaders expressed their frustration at the airline’s move, which is designed to protect its valuable slots at Heathrow Airport. They warned it sent out a “bad message” which could damage Birmingham’s image on the international trade stage.
However, hopes are still high that Air India, which launched the service a little over three years ago, will resume operations at Birmingham International next spring.
Although no comment was available from the airline, officials at Birmingham International confirmed they had been told the service - which links Amritsar via Birmingham to Toronto in Canada - will be suspended from late October. The service lands in Birmingham six times a week.
More than 100,000 people have already used it since the start of the year, with the airline’s load factor - a measure of how full its planes are on the route - at 85 per cent, well above the average for a long haul service.
Jerry Blackett, chief executive of Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, said: “This is very bad news for the region, given our focus on India.
“We are disappointed that this withdrawal is partly because Air India is trying to protect its slots at Heathrow.”
He added: “We hope to see another carrier fill the vacuum and we are aware that Jet Airways is a potential supplier. However, it will need the Indian government to relax its regulations which protect Air India from competition.”
That particular hope seems doomed to disappointment. Sources last night indicated it was highly unlikely Jet Airways will be able to operate on the route, although talks are ongoing with another un-named charter airline which they said might be able to partly fill the gap.
Mr Blackett added: “We hope we will welcome Air India back to Birmingham one day - but it is a very bad message to the world, given Birmingham’s determination to promote its diverse population. The chamber regularly takes trade missions to India, developing high trade missions between the two countries.
“If we are to continue to attract companies like Tata [which is now parent of Jaguar Land Rover] to the West Midlands, we need superb air links.”
Birmingham City Council leader Mike Whitby said: “We are sorry to see that Air India has temporarily moved its operation from Birmingham International Airport to Heathrow, and we look forward to their return in 2009.
“This move does present a tremendous business opportunity for charter carriers to launch services from Birmingham to India, as demand for flights remains high.
“We welcome the opportunity for flight operators to forge new links with the city of Birmingham as we continue to develop greater business relationships with India.”
Meanwhile, Peter Vella, BIA’s business development director, explained: “Air India is initiating more direct flights from India to the USA and as a result is reducing the number of transit flights it operates at London Heathrow, including services to New York.
“The airline will risk losing its Heathrow slots if it doesn’t operate at least 80 per cent of its allocated movements and, given their value, it needs to secure them. As a result, Air India will temporarily move its Birmingham flights to Heathrow until the summer 2009.
“Although we are disappointed by Air India’s decision, we appreciate the airline’s position to maintain its extremely valuable slots from the capital.”
He added: “The success of Air India’s Birmingham operation should not be questioned.
“Demand, therefore, certainly hasn’t been a factor either. In fact, we are in discussions with a number of interested carriers and growth is expected in the Asian charter market over the winter period so we don’t expect losing much capacity to India. We are sure some positive announcements will follow soon.”