Last summer, when south Delhi-based Ashima Jain was looking for a bargain on four return tickets to Los Angeles, she chanced on China Southern Airlines. “The fare was Rs 58,000 per person while the other carriers started at Rs 65,000,” said the businesswoman.

By offering lowest fares on busy travel routes between India, the Far East, Australia, New Zealand, right up to the West Coast of North America, along with short transit stops at their hubs, mainland Chinese carriers are attracting Indian passengers.

“In the past few years we have seen a gradual increase in Chinese carriers operating in India,” said Indiver Rastogi, president, Global Business Travel at Thomas Cook (India) Limited. “These airlines offer a combination of value-for-money fares and high quality experience that has attracted the price-conscious Indian traveller. These airlines are also popular with corporate travellers who have business interests in China or want to use the country as a hub to fly onward to the USA,” he added.

“The fare difference varies between Rs 20,000 and 25,000 for long-haul destinations like the US and Canada compared to other carriers like Singapore Airlines (SIA), Thai Airways and Malaysian Airlines. The competition price differential for China and Japan is from Rs 15,000-20,000,” Rastogi said.

The limited access to the Indian market granted to mainland Chinese carriers has saved airlines like SIA, Cathay Pacific, Thai, Malaysian and even Air India from a Chinese takeover on routes to the east. At the moment, all major Chinese carriers fly mainly to and from Delhi.

“Under current Sino-Indian bilateral agreements, airlines of both sides can operate 10,000 weekly seats on 42 frequencies. While Chinese carriers are utilizing this fully, India uses only 1,280 seats on the five flights that AI operates every week to Shanghai. No other Indian carrier flies to China,” said a senior government official. While China has been asking for enhanced bilaterals, the Modi government’s stand has been that they will be hiked when India carriers utilise 80% of the rights given to them bilaterally.

Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon have 48 weekly flights to six Indian cities. While HK is now part of China, Cathay continues to enjoy its flying rights under bilaterals that India had with Hong King when it was under British rule.

Among mainland Chinese carriers that operate to India, China Southern has the maximum number of flights with a twice-daily on the Delhi-Guangzhou (its hub) route, with both flights on the wide body Airbus A-330 aircraft. Chengming Yan, China Southern head in Delhi, said: “Almost 60-70% of our flyers from India take connections via Guangzhou to US, Australia and New Zealand. We have a great network from our hub to those places. Indian flyers do not need to wait for more than two hours for their connections.”

Ashima Jain, however, had a word of caution about the bargain. “The Guangzhou terminal had dirty, portable toilets. On the return journey from Guangzhou to Delhi, the staff questioned only Indians about the size of their cabin bags,” Jain said, while rating the experience 4/10. “Apart from the low fare, nothing else was attractive about it,” she said.

But low fares matter very much to price-conscious Indian travellers, who have been flocking to Chinese carriers.

John Nair, head of Cox & Kings’ business travel, agrees that cheap Chinese carriers pose a major challenge to airlines globally “Their fares are quite low compared to Indian or other foreign carriers via Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong or Malaysia. They compete at 20-30% lower fares than other carriers operating in these sectors,” he says.

The ‘affected’ competition is putting up a brave face. AI says its nonstop flights to San Francisco and Australia offer ‘unmatched’ convenience. GM of Singapore Airlines (India) David Lim, said: “While competition from Chinese carriers is steadily increasing, SIA continues to grow on all aspects of full-service offerings.” Charlie-Stewart Cox, Cathay Pacific’s GM (South Asia), argues that price is not the only deciding factor for choosing an airline. According to him, connections, service and on-board experience are also important. “While there is an increasing competition from the Chinese carriers, the India market has been a positive story in the Cathay Pacific group,” he said.