Expats elated over resumption of Air India service to Calicut from Sunday


By Hassan Cheruppa

Saudi Gazette

JEDDAH — Hundreds of thousands of Indian workers from the southern state of Kerala living in the western region of Saudi Arabia are delighted over the realization of their long-time demand for the resumption of direct flights of Air India, the national carrier, between Jeddah and Calicut. The flights will resume after a hiatus of nearly five years.

The Jumbo aircraft 747-400 with the capacity of 423 passengers will leave King Abdulaziz International Airport, Jeddah at 11.15 p.m. on Sunday and will land at Calicut International Airport in Karipur on Monday morning. Hundreds of local people, led by K.M. Basheer, president of the Calicut-based Malabar Development Forum (MDF), will accord a rousing reception to the flight and the passengers.

Around two million Gulf expatriates from the northern Malabar region of Kerala use Calicut airport, which was the seventh busiest airport in India in terms of passenger traffic and is often touted as the gateway to Malabar. The airport was closed for wide-bodied aircraft since May 2015 for repair and recarpeting of the runway, forcing Air India, Saudi Arabian Airlines and Emirates to divert their flights to Kochi, 155 km away.

Air India and Saudia operated direct flights, using wide-bodied aircraft, between Jeddah and Calicut. Air India later started operating a connection service to Calicut via Mumbai.

The suspension of wide-bodied aircraft has affected hundreds of thousands of expatriates and their families living in the Gulf, especially in the western region of Saudi Arabia. The Airports Authority of India (AAI), which operates the airport, had undertaken a Rs1 billion overhaul of the extensively damaged tabletop runway.

After a long interval of 18 months, the airport was opened for round-the-clock service by the end of 2016 with a revised runway schedule, but services of large aircraft remained suspended. Among the airlines, Saudia grabbed the first opportunity to resume direct flight in December 2018 after the authorities gave the green signal following agitations and a legal battle to save the airport by the MDF and a number of mass organizations based in Kerala and their affiliated bodies in the Gulf.

Speaking to Saudi Gazette, R. Prabu Chandran, manager of Air India, western region of Saudi Arabia, expressed happiness over the decision to resume operation of the Jeddah-Calicut service.

“We are hopeful that the much-anticipated resumption of service would be a great relief for expatriates from Kerala and this was evident from the tremendous response for booking. We offer the service at reasonable fares with enhanced baggage allowance of 45 kg in both directions, and the timings are also very convenient in the evening and at night.”

He said that in the beginning there will be two flights in a week that had been rerouted to Cochin at the time of suspension of service in Calicut at the time of recarpeting of the airport in 2015.

Chandran, who served earlier as manager of Air India’s Calicut airport office, also unveiled plans to increase the number of direct flight services to Calicut, one of the most profitable sectors of the national carrier, in the near future.

The aircraft will have a three-class configuration with 12 first class seats, 26 business class seats and 385 economy class seats. Air India, which had enjoyed a market stake of around 57 percent of the Jeddah–Calicut route, was the biggest loser following the suspension of wide-bodied aircraft.

V.P Mohammed Ali, chairman and managing director of Jeddah National Hospital, hosted a party on Wednesday to celebrate the joyful occasion of resumption of the Air India service.

Several prominent figures, including senior Air India officials, community leaders, media persons in addition to some passengers flying on board the first service, attended the function. Mohammed Ali and Chandran led the ceremony of cutting the cake to mark the occasion. The organizers of the event included T.P Shuhaib, V.P. Siyas and Ashraf Pattathil.

Speaking on the occasion, Mohammed Ali, who was in the forefront of the struggle to reinstate direct flights between Jeddah and Calicut, congratulated MDF and expatriate organizations for waging a relentless heroic struggle to retain the service, overcoming all the hurdles.

“This is the moment of great joy and jubilation for the 500,000-plus Keralites living in the western Saudi Arabia,” he said, while thanking senior officials of Air India for their great support to resume direct flights to Calicut. Mohammed Ali is one among the passengers scheduled to fly on board the jumbo flight.

Expressing happiness over the resumption of Air India service, MDF President K.M. Basheer told Saudi Gazette that his organization has scored ultimate victory of materializing the much sought after demand of hundreds of thousands of ordinary Indians living in the western region of Saudi Arabia.

“We have had to fight for several years against highly influential lobbies working for the private airports at the expense of Calicut airport, one of the most profitable airports in India’s public sector. Ultimately, we have scored success in the multi-pronged struggle with active participation of expatriates, their families and all sections of the Indian community,” he said, noting that the airport will become one of the busiest Indian airports round the clock by the middle of the year 2020 when many more airlines start operations.

IndiGo, a low-cost airline will also operate service to Jeddah, Riyadh and Dammam from Calicut in March. Spicejet, another low-cost airline, is already operating service between Calicut and Jeddah.

Basheer said MDF had organized, as part of the struggle titled “Save Karipur,” as many as 140 agitations and street protests and dharnas with the mass participation of the public.

“The entry of the jumbo aircraft will help contain other airlines from charging exorbitant fare, especially in the peak seasons ,” he said while specially thanking India’s former Minister of Civil Aviation Suresh Prabhu, Minister of State for External Affairs and Parliamentary Affairs V. Muraleedharan, K. Srinivasa Rao, director of Calicut airport, as well as some members of parliament for their efforts to remove the bottlenecks with regard to the restoration of the wide-bodied aircraft service.

Basheer also noted that Calicut is the only Indian airport that shortlisted for the Routes Asia 2020 Awards, the most prestigious award in the airline industry to recognize excellence in airport and destination marketing.