Air India resumes direct flights to Australia after 16 years

SYDNEY (AFP) - An Air India Dreamliner touched down in Australia on Friday, marking the resumption of direct flights by the carrier after a 16-year gap as it seeks to tap a potentially lucrative market.

Air India's country manager Ravi Bodade said he is confident of regularly filling the daily services that also go via Melbourne on the 256-seat Boeing 787-880 Dreamliner planes.

"It is a state-of-the-art aircraft, and we have a large Indian diaspora here - there is a huge student community and we are confident of filling up the aircraft," he said.

According to Sydney Airport, India has been Australia's largest unserved market, with 140,000 passengers last year travelling between New Delhi and Sydney via Asian hubs.

Tourism Australia managing director Andrew McEvoy said direct flights were essential if Australia was to secure its share of the 50 million Indians expected to be travelling outside their own country by the end of this decade.

"India is one of our fastest-growing inbound markets, particularly among leisure travellers, who have Australia high up on their wish list of international holiday destinations," he said.

"With Indian arrivals up nearly eight percent so far this year, the demand is clearly there and I have little doubt that Air India's re-entry into the Australian market will be widely and warmly applauded by both Indian travellers and by tourism operators here in Australia."

Diplomatic ties between India and Australia have been strained in recent years after a spate of violent crimes against Indian students prompted street protests, but the country remains a key destination for both foreign students and tourists.

The Air India arrival was the first in Australia by a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which has suffered a series of problems since coming into service, including a global grounding of its fleet this year after overheating problems.

Australian flag carrier Qantas has 14 on order but their delivery has been delayed until later this year.

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