K. Shyam Sundar, CEO of Air India Express addresses media at the launch of the first international flight to Chandigarh from Sharjah Image Credit: Pankaj Sharma/XPRESS

Dubai: Barely three years ago, the mention of Air India Express would prompt a litany of complaints from Indian expats in the UAE. Last-minute delays, cancellations, pending refunds, lack of service … the list of woes was long. The horrific Mangalore air crash of 2010 and the 58-day pilots’ strike in 2013 only made matters worse.

But talk of the same Air India Express today and people largely have good things to say.

The reasons are many, ranging from the provision of unmatched point-to-point connectivity, convenient schedules and low fares with free meals to punctual departures and the introduction of new or refurbished aircraft.

Just last week, Air India Express became the first carrier to operate direct services from the UAE to Chandigarh in the north of India and the only carrier to offer double daily services to Trichy in the south. As the airline’s visiting CEO K. Shyam Sundar said, the airline has added 60 flights per week in the past year alone from the UAE. “We now operate 164 flights a week to 13 Indian destinations from the UAE.” Besides Chandigarh and Trichy, these destinations include Varanasi, Kochi, Calicut, Trivandrum, Mangalore, Amritsar, Lucknow, Delhi, Mumbai, Jaipur and Pune.

Significantly, 85 per cent of all Air India Express flights operate in the Gulf sector, with the UAE accounting for 65 per cent. “As the airline expands, our focus is on tier 2 cities in India.”

Sundar said the airline for the first time in its history made a profit of Rs3.62 billion in 2015-16, against a loss of Rs610 million the previous year. “We carried 2.8 million passengers in 2015-16, up from 2.62 million the previous year and achieved a passenger load factor of 82.3 per cent as against a global average of 78 per cent. This is fantastic.”

He said Air India Express has acquired six new aircraft and refurbished its existing fleet, taking the total to 23.

Parminder Pal Singh, the airline’s sales manager for Dubai and northern emirates, said Air India Express flight timings and fares gave it a big edge. “Take the flight IX 188 to Chandigarh from Sharjah to launch on September 15. Its fares begin from Dh299 and it departs from Sharjah at 12.45pm and arrives at Chandigarh at 5.15pm. The return flight IX 187 will leave Chandigarh at 6.15pm and arrive at Sharjah at 8pm.”

The new Sharjah-Trichy flight IX with a starting fare of Dh349 leaves Sharjah at 8.35pm and arrives at Trichy at 2.30am the next morning. The return flight IX 613 takes off from Trichy at 3.30am and arrives at Sharjah at 6.20am. Besides these factors, Air India Express is the only budget airline to offer free meals and tea and coffee on board. It also offers incoming passengers an online visa facility. Recently, it also launched a mobile app.