India's booming economy, and the deregulation of the aviation industry, has brought about a huge increase in the number of domestic airlines in India in recent years. Passengers can now choose from one government owned full service airline, three privately owned full service airlines, and five privately owned low cost carriers.
To help you make the right decision when flying, here's an overview of what you can expect from each of India's domestic airlines.
Air India is India's government owned, full service domestic and international airline, based in Mumbai. Indian Airlines (the domestic carrier) merged with it in 2007. Its market share has dropped significantly, to around 17%, in recent years.
As is to be expected with a government airline, Air India has its share of inefficiencies. Flights are often delayed, flight attendants and in-flight service leave a lot to be desired, and the airline has been involved in as many as 12 fatal accidents in its history. On the positive side, it has well planned routes and flight schedules, flies to most destinations in India, and is surprisingly reliable when it comes to baggage handling. The free check-in baggage allowance is 15 kilograms. Note that the airline has been experiencing substantial financial troubles, resulting in flight delays and cancellations, in 2012.
Jet Airways is widely regarded as one of India's most well known and reliable airlines. It's a privately owned, full service airline that commenced operating in mid 1993. It holds around 18% of the market share, and has bases in Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bangalore.
Jet Airways has won many awards for quality service. In particular, the airline is known for its outstanding in-flight service, food, punctuality, and baggage handling. Staff are extremely efficient and courteous, and will go out of their way to ensure that you're comfortable and well looked after. The free check-in baggage allowance is 15 kilograms.
JetLite used to be Air Sahara until Jet Airways successfully took the company over in mid 2007. It was later merged with JetKonnect in early 2012. The low cost arm of Jet Airlines, JetKonnect now conveniently covers nearly 60 Indian cities, and has an 8% share of the market. Although it's a low cost airline, it does offer full services on certain popular routes. The limit for free checked-in baggage is 15 kilograms.
Kingfisher Airlines has the same "King of Good Times" owner as India's Kingfisher beer. It started operating in mid 2005 and built up a 15% market share. However, the airline ran into severe financial troubles in 2012, causing its market share to plummet to the lowest in India and its flight schedule to become unreliable. Frequent flight cancellations means that it's risky flying with this airline, despite the lure of cheap fares. Its headquarters are in Bangalore, with bases in Mumbai, Hyderabad, and Delhi.
Kingfisher's larger than life owner has given the airline many personal touches. Passengers are treated as guests, seating is spacious and comfortable, and the airline puts significant effort into recruiting charming and attractive staff. It also leads the way in regard to in-flight entertainment on domestic flights in India.
Note: Kingfisher Airlines (including Kingfisher Red) has now been suspended from operating.
Kingfisher Red, originally called Air Deccan, is a privately owned low cost airline based in Bangalore. It started operating in mid 2003 and was India's first low cost carrier. Kingfisher Airlines took over the airline in early 2008. The average age of its airplanes is four and a half years. Unfortunately, as Kingfisher Red is part of Kingfisher Airlines, it has also been suspended from operating.
Indigo Airlines is based in Delhi and flies to around 30 destinations all over India. This privately owned airline started operating in mid 2006, and has grown to have the largest market share in India of 27%. It's considered to be India's best low cost carrier.
Its airplanes are new and clean, and despite keeping fares low, the airline hasn't compromised on punctuality, connectivity of flights, safety, or customer service. Of course, don't expect any frills, but the amount of leg room is decent. If you're looking to fly with a low cost airline, IndiGo offers excellent value for money. The limit for check-in baggage is 15 kilograms.
SpiceJet is another decent, privately owned, low cost carrier. The airline, which is based in Delhi, started operating in mid 2005. It's another airline that has been steadily growing and has now captured around 18% of the market. It services around 30 destinations in India and owns 40 aircraft. The airline has been gradually updating its fleet, which has an average age of 4.6 years.
Punctuality on some routes is often an issue. Seats on the older planes can be a bit uncomfortable. The limit for check-in baggage is 20 kilograms. Definitely give it a try if you're on a budget though!
Go Air is a small privately owned, low cost airline that started operating in late 2005. The airline has been slowly but surely growing, and now has almost a 7% market share. It operates a fleet of brightly colored airplanes to just over 20 destinations in India. Its remote destinations include Jammu, Srinagar, and Guwahati.
Go Air offers some of the cheapest domestic fares available in India. Punctuality has been a common complaint about this airline in the past. However, these days, it seems to have greatly improved. The limit for checked-in baggage is 20 kilograms.