Mumbai or Bust -- In the Lap of Luxury

A new era in air travel between the United States and India began this weekend with the inauguration today of Jet Airways service between Newark Airport just outside New York City and Mumbai.

Jet Airways? Is that a cheap seat carrier?

Few are familiar with the home-grown Indian airline, but its founder Naresh Goyal says it won't take long for travelers to become familiar with what he believes will be an airline with luxury service that rivals trend-setters Singapore, Cathay, British Airways and Emirates.

"My goal," said Goyal at a recent lunch in New York, "is to be better than those airlines in terms of service, and we are already remaking the image of Indian air carriers."

Until recent deregulation, Air India was the only carrier permitted to offer international travel from Mumbai and other gateways in India. Jet Airways, founded 14 years ago as a domestic carrier, has become the first to fly to the United States as part of an aggressive expansion plan that Goyal believes will be driven by the booming Indian economy.

"There are about 30 million people in India who are very rich," says Goyal, "and another 300 million middle class."

With India's increasing connections to the global market, Goyal says there is great demand for premium air travel and quality service like that branded on board Singapore, Cathay and British Airways.

"Because of the stunning growth of the Indian economy," says a Jet Airways spokeswoman, "particularly the emergence of Indian companies in the global market, there are more and more travelers who want premium service" which is not offered by other Indian carriers.

India's economy has already attracted Continental to begin flights between Newark and Mumbai, but Jet Airways has a strategy to capture travel to and from India's vast country.

Jet Airways now flies between 40 cities in India and has quickly added routes to London, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Southeast Asia. It has established a hub at Brussels' airport, underused since the demise of that country's state carrier.

Jet Airways will fly from Newark to Mumbai through Brussels and soon from Toronto, and then from cities other than New York in the United States, coordinating schedules so that flights from many cities in India can connect to various European and North American destinations.

It will fly new Boeing 777-300 ER aircraft with newly designed three-class cabins and service that emphasizes India's roots but with a heavy helping of modern grace.

But at the New York lunch, Goyal emphasized Jet Airways' high level of service and plush, roomy seats in first and business class.

"We aim to be one of the top five airlines in the world in very short order," he said.

In first class, Jet Airways offers a mini suite with sliding double doors, an 83-inch-long lie-flat bed, a 23-inch video monitor to show films and videos from the extensive entertainment system, and a "buddy" seat that permits two travelers to dine together.

In business class, Goyal says there are wide, lie-flat beds and high-level food and wine.

In all three classes of service, including coach, toilets in the lavatories will include a bidet function, a European touch that is now beginning to appear on some Asian airlines.

His spokeswoman says service aboard the flights will dramatically change American perceptions of Indian air carriers.

"There is no other word but graciousness," she says, "it offers a level of service that will destroy many stereotypes about India and its airlines."

It will also offer competition and the prospect of lower premium class fares, which now range from upwards of $4,000 to $11,000 depending on class of travel.

Jet Airways is betting it has the right formula -- in fact, betting $3.7 billion on its international fleet expansion, including orders for 10 of the new Boeing 787 Dreamliners.

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