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From Atlanta to Mumbai—Non Stop

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February 2009
From Atlanta to Mumbai—Non Stop

From Atlanta to Mumbai—Non Stop

Thirty thousand feet above the ground, onboard the inaugural direct flight to Mumbai, I learnt that this latest route from Delta Air Lines was not just about an improved consumer experience, but also had a far reaching impact on trade and bilateral relations between Georgia and India. What’s more, Delta’s new route is the latest of many developments that suggest growing ties between the two regions.

By VIREN MAYANI

There was a time—before 9/11—when flying to India was, for the most part, an enjoyable experience. Even the required stopover at an airport, mostly somewhere in Europe, was at worst a tolerable waste of a few hours, and at best an opportunity for window shopping and people watching.

Alas, not anymore. Post 9/11 the “baggage” that comes with flying makes it somewhat of an ordeal. Not only has the novelty of international flying and airport hopping worn off for most of us, but worse, the dreaded flight changeover (usually at an ungodly hour that often feels like neither daytime nor nighttime to the continent-hopping traveler) has become downright grueling. It’s no fun going through long security lines, removing shoes and just about everything else on you, after having done the whole tedious routine just hours ago at your departing airport.

It gets worse still thanks to fickle rules that seem to have been painstakingly devised to make your stopover particularly painful. At Gatwick airport in London, for example, if your carry-on does not fit into the airport’s prescribed slot (which, by the way, is smaller than the one allowed at the Atlanta airport), then it’s not allowed as a carry-on for the remaining part of the journey.

Not surprisingly, lately, it seems almost all who have flown to India have had one challenging experience or another that has made this sabbatical journey an unpleasant ordeal.

So imagine my joy and anticipation when I heard that Delta was starting a direct flight from Atlanta to Mumbai—nonstop! On Saturday, November 1st, as a Khabar reporter as well as an official of the City of Atlanta, I was one of the privileged few who were part of a contingent of guests and dignitaries invited to fly on the inaugural flight on this new route. The significance of this event was evident considering some of the top brass of Delta who were flying with us to Mumbai on a four-day outing with an agenda of cultural exchange, trade ties and press conferences. Amongst these were Bobby Spann, Director of International Development, Patricia Addy, Acting General Manager, Agency Sales, and Maria Schnabel, Director Corporate Communications International.

My primary mission was to report on the flight and the experience. But I had also intended to use this opportunity to chronicle a larger trend—that of the growing ties between Georgia and India, not just by air, but also by land and sea. Many of my fellow passengers were on the cutting edge of just such a trend. Among them were: Kenneth Stewart, Commissioner, and Gretchen Corbin, Division Director of International Operations, both at the Georgia Department of Economic Development Agency; Hans Gant, Senior VP of Economic Development, Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce; Ani Agnihotri, founder, Georgia Indo-American Chambers of Commerce (GIACC) and Managing Partner, US-India Business and Research Center (USIBRC); Dr. Narsi Narasimhan, President of the GIACC; Rick Desai, President Elect of GIACC and a member of Georgia’s Asian-American Commission; and Stan Sthanunathan, Vice President of Marketing Strategy & Insights at the Coca-Cola Company.

Thanks to interactions with them, I soon found out that the launch of this new direct route was not just about an improved consumer experience, but also had a far reaching impact on trade and bilateral relations between Georgia and India.

Going into it, I was certainly full of anticipation, but also a bit on the edge about the sheer length of the flight. I wasn’t sure what it would be like to be cooped up in an airplane for over 15 hours (the return flight from Mumbai to Atlanta takes 17 hours due to loss of tail-winds, we were told). Research done by the World Health Organization has indicated that traveling on a long-haul flights generates a risk of getting a blood clot (venous thromboembolism—VTE or a deep vein thrombosis—DVT). And even seasoned travelers can be prone to boredom and mental fatigue when flying non-stop for such lengths.

But once aboard the Boeing 777-200 LR, having surveyed the spacious isles and seats, I relaxed a bit. From there, it only got better. The plush leather seats of the Business Elite class where Delta had graciously seated us had individual multi-functional consoles with cup holders, a fully retractable touch system media screen, and ports to attach digital headsets and more. Best of all, the seatback reclined a full 180 degrees for a normal, flat surface sleeping experience that was priceless.

Compared with regular transatlantic flights, Delta’s direct flight to India, not surprisingly, was more attuned to desi needs. The fact that masala chai was available upon asking was enough to convince me. From the cuisine to the entertainment, there was an array of desi and international choices. Needless to say, this was my most comfortable flight to India in all the years I’ve been travelling.

Flying high: Bilateral relations between Georgia and India

For me, however, being on board this flight was not only about the consumer experience. Over the recent past I had been witness to several developments that collectively pointed to growing ties between our “Peach State” and our native country.

From a trade and commerce perspective, interest in India has been steadily rising. During the flight, Commissioner Kenneth Stewart remarked how impressed he was by India’s double-digit GDP growth and its sustainability over the years.

At the Mumbai press conference for this inaugural flight, Frank Jahangir, Delta’s Staff VP of Sales and Affairs for Europe, Middle East, Africa and India, said, “With this launch, we are connecting the commercial hub of India with the commercial hub of the Southeastern United States.” Commissioner Stewart reinforced Jahangir’s comments when he highlighted the significance of connecting Atlanta with the “fifth largest economy in the world.” Stewart went on to share that trade between Georgia and India was up by 35 percent in just the preceding year, and added, “Wipro, Tundra, Hindalco have all invested in Georgia. Conversely, Delta as well as UPS and Coca Cola, whom we represent from Georgia, have invested in India.”

Delta’s direct flight can be seen as both—an effect of, as well as a catalyst for—these growing ties. Honorable Ronen Sen, India’s Ambassador to the United States, acknowledges the direct flight to Mumbai as a key reason for announcing a new Indian Consular office in Atlanta. “The Indian Consulate in Atlanta will be a full consulate, not only handling visas and other services but also promoting cultural, commercial, educational, and scientific links between Georgia and India. This relationship is burgeoning,” said Sen.

It certainly is, judging by these recent developments.

State Senate affirms Indo-Georgia friendship

On October 28, 2008, Georgia passed the historic State Senate Resolution 1248 affirming Indo-Georgia relations and seeking to promote “cultural, economic, and educational cooperation” between the two.

“Indo-Georgian cooperation has been gradually evolving with frequent exchange visits by dignitaries from Georgia and India. The Indian Embassy has been working very closely with their American counterparts to broaden the scope of the mutual interaction of multi-nationals such as The Coca Cola Co., Delta, et al. Today, India and the Peach State share a growing relationship,” remarked Subash Razdan, Chairman of GFUSA and a key proponent of the resolution.

Speaking in the Georgia Senate chambers at this momentous occasion, Ambassador Sen also announced the proposed opening of an Indian Consulate office in Atlanta, citing various factors including the launch of Delta’s direct flight to Mumbai as the reasons for Atlanta’s growing potential for India. “We are just starting to realize the potential. Everything points to a very robust relationship,” said the Ambassador

The resolution was a collaborative effort by the Gandhi Foundation of USA and the Asian American Chamber of Commerce, along with Senators Judson Hill of the 32nd district and Chip Pearson of the 51st district and other key Georgians such as Narender Reddy, member of Atlanta’s Northern Arc Committee and Dr. Josephine Tan, chair, Asian American Commission.

The Georgia Port Authority to increase trade shipments to India

In another recent development, the Georgia Ports Authority signed a first ever of its kind, Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Georgia Indo American Chambers of Commerce to increase bilateral trade sea shipments with India. A delegation of GIACC officials along with Georgia Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine made an informative and enriching day-long trip to the Georgia Ports Authority (GPA) in Savannah to learn more about the authority and its plans for promoting sea-trade with India. The MoU marks the GPA’s recognition of increasing trade prospects between southeastern United States and India.

The hospitable hosts at the Port Authority treated us to a day of education and entertainment. The over two-hour presentation was an eye-opener for many of the delegates who learnt not only about the Port Authority’s plans and capabilities, but also about the bilateral trade prospects with India. At the Savannah Port, imports from India have grown 264 percent and exports to India have grown 242 percent just in the last five years. From 2006 to 2007, India’s sea trade has seen a 12 percent growth with the U.S. In the same span, however, the increase in trade through the Savannah Port has been an impressive 215 percent. Not surprisingly, the GPA has created an India Initiative for outreach and education.

“Everything points to a very robust relationship”

Judging from Ambassador Sen’s words it is apparently not just Delta’s Atlanta-India flight that is nonstop, but also the growing trade and cultural ties between the two regions. Several other indicators suggest a healthy momentum for this phenomenon.

The only caveat here is the dramatic reversal of the global economy which has put dampers on some such initiatives that had started to take shape. The proposed twinning of Atlanta with Ahmedabad in a Sister City relationship, is one such example. In an ethnic media conference this month, Mayor Franklin shared that due to budget cuts, the City is finding it challenging to keep vibrant its current sister-city engagements with 17 cities worldwide, let alone expending resources on new ones.

What bodes well, however, are the synergies that were credited for the proposed twinning of Atlanta and Ahmedabad. One of the significant reasons cited for this matchup was the bond between the two prominent Apostles of peace, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. The MLK-Gandhi link had been consistently embraced by the late Coretta Scot King, the widow of Dr. King, and has been nurtured by both the King Center and Atlanta’s Gandhi Foundation of USA. The Sister City commission noted that both Gandhi and King are a global brand for nonviolence and social justice. Indeed, Gandhi’s significance to Atlanta will only increase when the highly anticipated, multimillion dollar museum called the Center for Civil and Human Rights will launch in 2010 as per plans.

At Delta’s press meeting in Mumbai, Honorable Paul Folmsbee, U.S. Consul General to Mumbai, pointed out that Ahmedabad was an important center of Gandhi’s work and legacy, whereas Atlanta was similarly central to Dr King’s work and legacy. “So you have this fantastic connection,” he enthusiastically stressed.

Other individuals, such as Atlanta’s iconic marketing guru and consultant to top corporations, Dr. Jagdish Sheth, through his India China America Institute, have made significant forays into trade and commerce interchange between high ranking businesses on both sides. Besides, there were high profile visits by Karnataka Chief Minister B. S. Yediyurappa and Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh, symposiums on business opportunities in India, a Leadership Atlanta delegation consisting of a diverse group of representatives from Oracle, the Georgia Department of Community Affairs, the Regional Atlanta Civic League, Morehouse School of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The delegation, lead by Ani Agnihotri of USIBRC, was meant to be an exercise in both cultural interaction as well as an exploration of India’s role as an active business partner for the state of Georgia.

Coming back a full circle, it is worth noting that the growing ties between Georgia and India also translates to precious benefits for Indian Americans living in the region, and not always in the realm of trade and commerce. As simple a thing such as a direct flight from Atlanta to India can mean the difference between elderly parents from India visiting or not. Stan Sthanunathan of The Coca Cola Company, a fellow guest on the inaugural flight to Mumbai had this to say: “Thanks to this direct flight, my mother is now ready to come to visit us in Atlanta because she does not have to go through a harrowing stopover experience in Paris or some port in Europe!”


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