A Flight Of Firsts

Four of Air India’s most experienced women pilots took off from San Francisco (SFO) on  January 11th, (India time) for Bengaluru to operate the first-ever scheduled service between south India and the US. It is also the first time that an all-women cockpit crew of an Indian carrier flew over the North Pole.

“This will be the longest commercial flight in the world to be operated by Air India or any other airline in India…The total flight time on this route will be of more than 17 hours depending on the wind speed on that particular day,” Air India said in a statement. The direct distance between the two cities at opposite ends of the world is 13,993 km, with a time zone change of around 13.5 hours, an Air India official said. 

The four record-setting pilots operating the almost 18-hour AI 176 that was scheduled to reach Bengaluru (BLR) early morning today are captains Zoya Aggarwal, Papagari Thanmai, Akansha Sonaware and Shivani Manhas. They are flying a Boeing 777 200 (long range or LR) VT-ALG that is named ‘Kerala’. The SFO airport wore the Indian flag colours to celebrate this occasion. 

Bengaluru-SFO shortest flight distance is over 14,000 km, about 1,000 km more than Delhi-SFO. Very often airlines take longer routes to get tail winds and avoid headwinds. Kerala, for instance, took the longer Pacific route from Delhi to SFO on Wednesday with the same set of four pilots. The inaugural to Bengaluru came back via over the North Pole — getting tail winds on both sectors.

“Air India’s woman power flies high around the world,” Union Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Puri said on Twitter. “All women cockpit crew consisting of Capt Zoya Aggarwal, Capt Papagari Thanmai, Capt Akansha Sonaware & Capt Shivani Manhas will operate the historic inaugural flight between Bengaluru & San Francisco,” Mr. Puri said.

Flight AI176 will depart from San Francisco in the U.S. at 8.30 p.m. (local time) on Saturday, and land at the Kempegowda International Airport at 3.45 a.m. (local time) on Monday. “Captain Zoya Aggarwal is an accomplished pilot with a flying experience of more than 8000 hrs and command experience in a B-777 aircraft of more than 10 years and more than 2500 flying hours,” the national carrier said.

The flight will operate with a Boeing 777-200LR aircraft VT ALG with a seating capacity of 238 seats, including eight First Class, 35 Business Class, 195 Economy class configuration, besides four cockpit and 12 cabin crew, Air India said. 

Almost fully booked

The first ever direct flight between the two tech hubs is almost fully booked — 225 out of 238 seats — despite the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns over air travel. 

The flight, which has long been in the pipeline, will be the first direct non-stop flight between the west coast of the United States and southern India. Given the significant population of south Indians in San Francisco, home to the Silicon Valley, a direct flight has been a long-pending demand. 

The biweekly flight will take off to San Francisco from Bengaluru on Mondays and Thursdays, and leave San Francisco for Bengaluru on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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