The Indian Sub-Continent is not exactly known for its high aviation standards, but lets examine the top 4 players in the region to see who punches above their weight.
Air India is the flag carrier airline of India owned by Air India Limited (AIL), a Government of India enterprise. It is the third largest airline in India (after IndiGo and Jet Airways) in domestic market share, and operates a fleet of Airbus and Boeing aircraft serving various domestic and international airports. Air India has two major domestic hubs at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, and Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, with secondary hubs at Chennai International Airport and at Kolkata’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport. Air India was once the largest operator in the Indian subcontinent with a market share of over 60%. Indifferent financial performance and service, as well as frequent recruitment issues pushed the airline down to fourth place in India, behind low cost carriers like IndiGo, SpiceJet, and its full service rival Jet Airways.
SriLankan Airlines was established in 1978 as Air Lanka, following the termination of operations of the original Sri Lankan flag carrier Air Ceylon. It was rebranded in 1998. It is one of the largest international airlines in South Asia, and holds a 7/7 safety rating from Airline Ratings, which is considerably better than many of its regional rivals. SriLankan is a member of One World.
Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) is the national flag carrier and a state-owned enterprise of the Government of Pakistan. It operates scheduled services to 23 domestic destinations and 30 international destinations in 27 countries across Asia, Europe and North America. Its main bases are at Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad. PIA has a long history of milestones in aviation, such as being the first Asian airline to operate a jet aircraft and Boeing 737 aircraft. It today remains by far Pakistan’s largest airline with a fleet of 31 airplanes and at least 10 more on order. Furthermore, PIA was the launch customer to operate the 777-200LR aircraft.
Biman Bangladesh is the national flag carrier of Bangladesh. Its main hub is at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka and the airline provides international passenger and cargo services to its destinations. Annual Hajj flights, transporting tourists and non-resident Bangladeshi workers and migrants, and the activities of its subsidiaries form an integral part of the airline’s business. Biman is one of Asia’s smallest flag carriers, operating only 10 aircraft on a network of 22 destinations, including 19 international and three within Bangladesh. Its fleet currently consists of four 777-300ERs, two 777-200ERs, two 737-800s and two A310s.
At this juncture, let us take a look at a video flight report of all 4 airlines, so we can see the kind of service and style that is offered onboard:
Air India, New York to Delhi (economy class), B777-300ER, from seatgurus:
SriLankan Airlines, Colombo to Bangkok (economy class), A340, from Salem712:
Pakistan International Airlines, London to Lahore (Business Class), B777, from TheAirlineAviation:
Biman Bangladesh, Dhaka to Kuala Lumpur (economy class), B777-300ER, from luigisharaf:
I hope that you enjoyed getting a glimpse of what it is like to fly with these sub-continent airlines in the videos embedded above, but now let’s go in to some more detail about certain areas of the service and do a detailed comparison:
Air India’s cabin crew for me is a little bit touch-and-go. Sometimes they can be great, and sometimes not so great. I would say though that the cabin crew is the best part of Air India, and despite difficult working conditions and low pay, they are usually very friendly and understanding towards passengers and go about their business with a smile. It’s about time they had their cabin crew uniform modernised though, don’t you think?
I have always had a soft spot for the cabin crew of SriLankan Airlines. In my opinion, they are among the best in the world. Only Singapore Airlines and maybe Cathay Pacific and Korean Air can compare to the high level of professionalism and friendliness that you will experience onboard a SriLankan flight. They are much more consistent than their regional counterparts over at Air India, for example.
Much like the crew over at Air India, PIA’s cabin crew are the best thing about the airline. Known as one of the worst airlines in the world, PIA still employ some really nice cabin crew onboard their aircraft (at least for international flights). A relaxed atmosphere is usually provided by the crew when flying PIA. On top of that, PIA have some of the most skilled pilots in the region.
Biman Bangladesh to some people is a rather exotic airline that they probably would never choose to fly with. However, if you have that attitude then you will miss out on experiencing the calm and friendly service that is offered by the Biman cabin crew. I haven’t flown with Biman too often, but in my few experiences I was left very impressed – even if their uniforms are awful! The ground staff for Biman Bangladesh are also very professional.
Air India do not have a good reputation with their catering. However, in my experience, it hasn’t been too bad. That said, it is very bland, and perhaps not too much to entice the western palette. Air India need to realise that not everybody flying with them will want Asian meals, and a wider selection that includes a western option is always a good thing.
SriLankan Airlines have good catering on their international flights, even for the short haul flights to places like Singapore and Bangkok. While not among the very best food in the skies, SriLankan still offer a good selection with fresh fruit and fairly fresh bread. Some long haul flights will also have a selection of snacks in the galley for you to enjoy at any time of the journey.
If I had to compare PIA’s food to any other airline, I would compare it to Air India. However, PIA do seem to have better variety and the presentation is often much better. I am basing this opinion solely on economy class meals, as I have not flown with either airline in their premium cabins.
Biman Bangladesh offer branded paper cups for your drinks, which is a nice touch, although I am not sure it is completely necessary. The rest of Biman’s meals in economy class looks very bland, and even the bread roll comes wrapped up in cellophane – who knows how old that is?! One saving grace for Biman is that they often include a choice of “western” meal, although be warned that these may run out quickly on busy flights.
Air India’s main international base is at Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi. Nowadays, the airport is among the best in Asia, although this generally only applies to Terminal 3 (which was modelled on Singapore Changi). Flying out of T1 or T2 will probably be a somewhat haphazard affair, regardless of which airline you are flying with. Can Air India offer anything extra because it is their home base? Well, not really. You just have to hope your flight isn’t delayed!
Colombo Airport is the home of SriLankan Airlines, and this is one of the main weaknesses in their operation. It is a bad airport, and not very modern. Congestion and chaos will be the buzzwords if you are ever unfortunate enough to have a layover here inside the terminal buildings. The ground staff at the airport will go out of their way to advise you what is going on, but are very limited in what can actually do to help you.
Whether you are flying to Lahore, Karachi, or even Islamabad (heaven forbid!), you are not going to find any positive attributes either from the airports or from PIA.
Biman Bangladesh have their primary base at Dhaka Shahjalal International Airport. This is a very underrated airport, with fairly advanced facilities, though still not a patch on Indira Gandhi Airport over in Delhi (nor a few other Indian airports, actually).
Air India have some very big troubles ahead, with recent reports published by the airline showing that amazingly only 9 of Air India’s 370 daily flights are profitable. This clearly means there is a need for major restructuring in much the same vein as many South East Asian airlines, such as Malaysia Airlines and Garuda Indonesia recently (to varying success). A new hub is being planned at Dubai International Airport, although I have no idea how this will help Air India, unless they are planning to utilise some fifth freedom routes. Between September 2007 and May 2011, Air India’s domestic market share declined from 19.2% to 14%, primarily because of stiff competition from private Indian carriers, though in recent times they have been fighting back with a vengeance and their market share has increased again. So not all is doom and gloom with Air India, though despite this increasing market share over the past 24 months, revenue and profits are still down. Air India, much like their colleagues over at Malaysia Airlines, are finding that the advent of budget airlines (IndiGo, SpiceJet, and the very new India Air Asia) are driving down prices, and offering a “full service” with meals etc, just doesn’t cut the mustard now with the cost-conscious Indian flyers who just want to get to A to B.
SriLankan’s future is very safe indeed, as the airline is fairly well-managed with a cabin crew that punches well above its weight and leaves passengers usually very satisfied. The airline has a big presence in the South East Asian market, as well as in China, where it flies daily to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Hong Kong, all via Bangkok. There have been rumours of a direct SriLankan service from Colombo to Sydney, or at least Perth in Western Australia, although we shall see if these plans ever take off.
PIA is a very troubled airline, with a very poor reputation (much of which is wholly justified). Aviation standards in Pakistan are not exactly high either, although this has nothing to do with the airline itself. PIA is currently going through a procedure of privatisation to shift management from government to private sector, and once this happens I believe things can start to get better, and it is something that needs to happen to Thai Airways as well, as a matter of fact.
Biman Bangladesh has a lot of potential but it remains to be seen if they have the nous to break into the all-important Europe to Asia market and compete the big Middle East 4 of Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, and Turkish. At the moment, things look challenging for Biman in this competitive market, as the pie chart above also confirms. Biman is currently facing stiff competition from a number of domestic Bangladeshi private airlines as well as some international carriers, which offer greater flexibility targeting Bangladesh’s air transport sector which is experiencing an 8% annual growth rate, thanks to a large number of tourists and non-resident Bangladeshi travellers. With the B777 now the backbone of its longhaul fleet, Biman Bangladesh is now focusing on introducing nonstop flights to New York and Sydney in 2015, although the suspension of the service to Frankfurt will have to come first in order to achieve the latter.
Have you flown with any of the 4 airlines mentioned in this article? If so, let me know what you think of them, good experiences or bad experiences? Do you disagree with anything I have written? Tell me in the comments section! Thanks for reading and please check out my other Airline Battle blog posts!