Move to cancel London-Kochi direct flight from April? AI CEO promises to look into issue

Air India Airbus A320neo
An Air India Airbus A320neo passenger plane moves on the runway after landing at Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel International Airport, in Ahmedabad, India, October 22, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Amit Dave

London: The popular London-Kochi direct flight of Air India has disappeared from all ticket booking sites for dates after April 2023, spreading anxiety among Keralites in the United Kingdom. Moreover, passengers who had booked on the flight to Kochi for July and August next year have received e-mails informing them that their journey has been rescheduled via Mumbai and Delhi. These developments indicate that Air India authorities are planning to withdraw the London-Kochi service, which was introduced after a long wait.

Incidentally, Kerala’s Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan had said at the Europe regional meet of Loka Kerala Sabha, an organization of expatriate Keralites, that discussions were taking place to increase the frequency of the flight from three to five days a week. Noted entrepreneur M A Yusuff Ali, who is a director of Cochin International Airport Ltd (CIAL), had confirmed this development at the meeting.

This is the second time that the London-Kochi direct flight has disappeared from booking sites. On the first occasion, the bookings were restored following the intervention of Union Minister of State for External Affairs & Parliamentary Affairs V Muraleedharan and some other Members of Parliament. A similar situation calling for high-level pressure has emerged again, said expatriates in the UK hailing from Kerala.

There were no direct flights from the UK to Kerala before the pandemic. During the crisis, when all regular services were cancelled, Air India conducted special schedules titled ‘Vande Bharat’ to bring back Indians stranded in Britain. These flights were operated only to a few destinations such as Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad, Kochi and Bengaluru. After the COVID-19 crisis eased, the London-Kochi service was retained as a regular schedule.

Initially a weekly service, the frequency was increased to twice and later thrice a week. The schedule has been in much demand among Malayali expatriates in the UK as they can reach Kerala within 10 hours on the direct flight. In fact, the London-Kochi flight of Air India even surpassed the popularity of Emirates, the top airline in the sector.

Air India never had to conduct the service without passengers and there cannot be an excuse to withdraw it citing financial grounds. Moreover, Kochi airport authorities have offered discounts on using its facilities and ground handling, along with providing accommodation for the crew. With all these arrangements still in place, the reason behind the reported move to withdraw the direct service is mysterious.

Air India chief’s assurance

Meanwhile, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Air India Campbell Wilson has promised to examine the issue. In a reply to an email from NORKA-ROOTS chief executive officer K Harikrishnan Namboothiri bringing the disappearance of the London-Kochi direct flight from booking sites to his attention, Wilson said that he would inquire into the matter and also discuss the possibility of providing more flights with his network planning team.

The authorities at NORKA-ROOTS, an organization under the Kerala Government, came to know about the non-availability of the direct flight from ‘Manoramaonline’ and contacted the Air India CEO. In the email, Namboothiri pointed out that the flight is extremely popular among Keralites in the UK. It is regretful that the existing flight is being withdrawn when the Malayali expatriates were demanding more services, said the NORKA-ROOTS official.

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