New Delhi, October 13 :

Air China, the country’s second-biggest carrier and its main international airline, is starting a direct service between Beijing and New Delhi from October 30.

The service will be available three times a week between the capitals of the two countries. The state-run carrier is the second airline after Ethiopian Airlines to offer a direct service between New Delhi and Beijing.

“There is a growing interest among both the Chinese people and Indians to visit each

others’ countries - especially to the capitals. We want to tap that growing market,” said Zhao Quanzhen, country manager for Air China in India.

“Passenger traffic between India and China grew by 20 percent to 600,000 in 2005 and we feel that there will be further interest - both for tourists and business people - as economic linkages between our countries develop,” added Zhao.

He said a pact has been entered into with Ambassador Sky Chef in-flight caterers to serve special Indian meals in the new service - which will begin with a Boeing 767-200 aircraft.

“Next year, we intend to make this a daily service and shift the operations to either Airbus A330 or A340 aircraft or a Boeing 777.

We will initially have 18 business class and 192 economy class seats,” he added. At present another Chinese airline - China Eastern - operates between the two countries, connecting New Delhi and Shanghai. “But there is enough market for both the airlines to have a decent load factor,” Zhao said.

According to him, out of the 600,000 passengers who travelled between India and China last

year only 200,000 were Chinese — due to difficulty in securing Indian visas, stiff hotel tariffs in India and restrictions on Chinese investments.

“In fact, visa is the single most important issue. In the first week of October, for example, which is a week of holidays in China, we had enough inquiries to operate 8-10 charters to India. But we could not get visas,” Zhao said.

“Visa is a problem not only for tourists but also diplomats and officials. Even the governor of one of our provinces who visited India with a business team had some problems, he told me,” the airline official said.