They want a nonstop flight to India; RDU told them what must happen here first

·6 min read
Angelina Katsanis/akatsanis@newsobserver.com

Members of the Triangle’s growing Indian community want to persuade an airline to fly nonstop between Raleigh-Durham International Airport and India. They heard from RDU officials Thursday that it won’t be easy.

Nearly 200 people turned out for a town hall meeting in Morrisville to hear RDU’s CEO and an air service consultant explain how the airport goes about persuading airlines to establish flights to new destinations. Most came with the hope that growing ties between North Carolina and India would be enough for an airline to begin flying between the two.

India accounts for the second highest number of foreign-born residents of North Carolina, after Mexico, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The community’s growth has helped persuade Indian companies such as Infosys and Bharat Forge to locate in the Triangle, said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri of Wake County, the state’s first Indian-American legislator.

“We’ve been able to see our community leverage its influence and our hospitality to deepen the ties between India and North Carolina from an economic perspective,” Chaudhuri said at the meeting’s outset. “The question is can we rally our community, can we rally our companies, now to establish a nonstop flight from India to North Carolina to support our efforts. I believe there are a number of reasons we can do this.”

Others spoke about the difficulty of flying between the Triangle and India for business and to visit family. They spoke of long layovers, missed connections and lost baggage at the few American airports that offer nonstop flights to the subcontinent of Asia.

“You do not have an idea of what we have to go through in these places to get to India,” said Vimal Kolappa, CEO of East Coast Hospitality, a hotel group, and a member of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina, which recruits companies to the state.

Using data provided by airlines, RDU knows how many people fly from the region and where they’re going. In 2019, at the pre-pandemic peak of air travel from the Triangle, about 75 people a day flew to India, said Howard Mann of the consulting firm Campbell-Hill Aviation Group. Some flew nonstop to London or Paris and made connections, while others went through places such as Washington or New York.

Post-pandemic, that number has dropped to about 50 a day, Mann said.

That’s not enough to fill an airplane, said Michael Landguth, RDU’s president and CEO.

“To put it in perspective, these aircraft we’re talking about for these long-haul flights are about 275 people,” Landguth told the crowd at the Hindu Society of North Carolina auditorium. “The airlines want to put 275 people on board that airplane every single day. That will be a challenge.”

International flights from RDU require incentives

Airlines fly nonstop to India from just four airports in the eastern third of the country: New York, Chicago, Newark and Washington. Other large airports, including hubs such as Atlanta, Charlotte and Miami, would stand a better chance of getting any new nonstop service.

Landguth said Triangle residents and businesses will need to make the case to an airline that the region can support air service to India, including commitments from companies to buy tickets on those flights. Airlines will also need financial incentives.

A combination of both helped the Triangle land nonstop flights to London and Paris, Landguth said. For the Paris flight, the airport provided $1.2 million in waived fees and marketing support to Delta Air Lines, while private groups put up another $1 million.

The incentives and pledges of support from companies made it easier for Delta to commit the $80 million to $90 million it cost to operate nonstop service to Paris that first year, Landguth said.

“When you start talking about India, which is a much further haul that than, you’re probably north of $150 million that they’re going to put at risk coming to a market,” he said. “So they’re looking for what we call skin in the game. If you have skin in the game — you’re willing to commit to that — you’re going to help that aircraft and that airline be successful in that market.”

Going from two stops to one

Both Mann and Landguth said an interim step would be to improve connections between RDU and India through other airports. Only about a third of RDU’s India-bound passengers are able to make it on a single connecting flight, Mann said, while two thirds are making two connections.

One strategy, then, might be to persuade airlines such as Emirates or Qatar to provide nonstops between RDU and their hubs in Dubai and Doha, where Triangle travelers could go on to India or other cities in Asia and the Middle East.

“Sometimes our air service goals are to move from two stops to more one stops,” Mann said.

Despite the sobering message about nonstop flights to India, Morrisville Town Council member Steve Rao, who organized the town hall, said he was encouraged. Rao said he would suggest creating a task force of business and community leaders to build support for better service, including the possibility of nonstops to an international hub with better connections to India.

“That would be progress,” he said. “If we got that, working with Emirates to get a flight to Dubai, that would prevent the long layovers.”

Earlier efforts focused on nonstops to China

Five years ago, RDU had its sights set on a different destination in Asia: China. In February 2018, the airport hosted a symposium for business, university and government leaders to talk about enticing an airline to establish a nonstop flight over the Arctic to Beijing, Shanghai or other gateway city.

At the time, RDU was planning to build an 11,500-foot runway to replace its aging main runway. The replacement would be 1,500 feet longer than the existing runway, long enough that a large jet fully loaded with passengers, luggage and fuel bound for Asia could take off in any kind of weather.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic severely curtailed air travel, RDU scaled back its plans. It eventually settled on 10,639 feet, after Alaska Airlines, which flies daily between RDU and Seattle, said that length would allow it to carry more passengers, cargo and fuel to the West Coast. The Federal Aviation Administration signed off on that length earlier this year.

RDU officials say they could still someday lengthen the new runway to 11,500 feet but that building a shorter one now would save time and money. The airport’s existing main runway is deteriorating and must be shut down several days a week so workers can replace slabs of crumbling concrete.

The length of RDU’s runway did not come up at Thursday’s town hall meeting. But Mann acknowledged afterward that it could prevent airlines from establishing some long-haul flights from the Triangle.