The inaugural festivities included a ceremonial water cannon salute, traditional gate-side Indian prayer ceremony, and ribbon and cake cutting.
DULLES, VA: Air India marked the inaugural launch of its nonstop flight connecting the US and Indian capital cities with a series of celebratory events in the Commonwealth of Virginia, home to Washington Dulles International Airport.
“Today, we celebrate an important partnership and welcome Air India’s direct air service to Dulles,” Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe said at a press conference Friday morning, soon after the first flight, AI 103, arrived from Delhi. “Virginia is committed to expanding and growing our relationships with the international community, especially our friends in India. We look forward to the opportunities this new route will provide for people in Virginia and India alike. This will be an important avenue for business, tourism and educational opportunities between our two great countries,” he told a packed event at Dulles airport.
The inaugural festivities included a ceremonial water cannon salute, traditional gate-side Indian prayer ceremony, the press conference, ribbon and cake cutting at Dulles airport, followed by a gala luncheon at the CEB Waterview Conference Center in Arlington, overlooking the Potomac river.
Hailing the arrival of the first flight from Indira Gandhi International Airport to Dulles, Governor McAuliffe noted it bridged a distance of 7,458 miles in 14 hours and 20 minutes. “This was a sold out flight which I am very happy about”, he said, to applause, adding that “238 very smart passengers embarked on the flight.”
Air India is offering direct flights three times a week — Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays — on its Boeing 777 aircraft. The flight departure time from Washington is 11:00 am.
The new capital connection is estimated to bring an additional 30,000 leisure and business travelers and generate 30 million dollars in revenue for the Washington area, annually. “Adding Delhi is so important for us, a country of 1.3 billion individuals”, Gov. McAuliffe, who has “led great trade missions to India,” said.
“Here in the capital region, we build bridges of economic opportunity. We do not build walls,” he underscored. The new route, he noted, will unite families, bring businesses together and boost tourism. “This is a really important day for us. It is about trade, commerce, opening up friendships, it is about family,” he said.
Thanking Indian Ambassador Navtej Sarna for his tremendous leadership and for being a personal friend, McAuliffe affirmed, “We love the Indian community. We have always had a strong relationship with your country and people”, he said, emphasizing that India is the largest democracy in the world. “We are here to continue building bridges of friendship,” he pledged.
Sarna who traveled with his wife on the inaugural flight from Delhi to Washington called the new service “a real landmark” some ten days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “very successful visit to the US. A lot of the issues that were discussed by the two administrations hinge on connectivity, increased trade and investment.” he noted.
“I think this flight, symbolic as it is, is also going to have a very realistic impact on our bilateral relations,” the envoy said to much applause. “This will contribute to the political connections, to the trade connections, to the investment connections and to the connections of the hugely successful Indian diaspora in the United States who make it a point to go home very often.”
Noting that “there is today an entire outlook in India which wants to attract foreign investment,” Sarna drew attention to major economic reforms in progress, including the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which simplifies the tax system. “This itself will give a huge boost to the economy which is growing at seven percent. I don’t think many economies in the world are anywhere near that,” he said, to more applause.
According to Sabre Global Demand Data, for the year ending March 2016, over 281,000 Indians visited the Washington area making India the fourth largest overseas travel market for the national capital region. Travel Market Insights reports visitation from India to DC has grown 40 percent since 2013, and 70 percent to the region.
Looking around the packed room at Dulles airport, District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “Here, in the nation’s capital, we are delighted to invite many more visitors from India to explore the sights and sounds that make Washington, DC the greatest city in the world”.
Jerome Davis, executive vice president and chief revenue officer of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, stated, “With international visitation between India and the Washington, DC area expected to double by 2025, the Airports Authority’s partnership with Air India, the Commonwealth of Virginia and the District of Columbia is just one way we’re working to enhance the level of service offered at Dulles International.”
Margaret McKeough, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Airports Authority, pointed out that Dulles airport serves 7.5 million international travelers annually who can avail of nonstop service to over 50 international destinations in more than 40 countries. “Air India’s service launch adds our 33rd capital-to-capital connection, linking the world’s oldest democracy with the world’s largest democracy,” she said.
Noting that Washington is the Indian carrier’s fifth US destination after New York, Newark, Chicago and San Francisco, Ashwani Lohani, chairman and managing director of Air India Limited, said, “It reinforces our commitment to provide the most convenient service between the United States and India”.
He told journalists, “It is great that the capitals of the two largest democracies in the world are today connected by a direct flight.”
Regarding foreign tourists who come to India, he noted that the largest number are from the US. “We want to increase this figure,” he said, divulging plans to connect two more cities: Los Angeles and Houston or Dallas.
“Air India is a brand, it’s a legend of India,” Lohani said. “We want to keep it that way. We are on expansion mode. Last year, we launched four international flights; this year, we are launching seven.”
About the Washington-Delhi connection, he told the audience, “We want to make it a daily flight. Kindly fill it up.”
(This post has been updated.)