Most Indians have only seen one kind of an airline. This airline has big planes (Airbus A320 or Boeing 737), usually flies on the ‘trunk’ routes (linking, e.g., Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai), has pretty air hostesses, serves reasonably good food in flight, offers you the option of ‘checking in’ your baggage, uses a complex network of travel agents to sell tickets, and, generally speaking, sells air travel as a lavish and enjoyable flying experience.
For some months now, Capt G R Gopinath — with his Air Deccan – is trying to manoeuvre a complete about turn. And, from the look of things, he’s going to pull it off.
In the good captain’s gameplan, the only thing on offer is a clean aircraft that is “always on time” and “gets you from point A to B at the lowest cost” (typically half the cost of conventional commercial airlines). There are no free ‘giveaways’ (“not even a glass of water!”).
There’s a lot of thought and planning behind this decision to be ‘lean and mean’. “Do you know how much it costs an airline to serve you food onboard?”, Capt Gopinath asks. “You must carry food for a full aircraft, pay a large number of stewards and hostesses to serve this food and lose precious time at airports waiting for the food to be loaded and the cabins to be cleaned”.
Handling baggage is an even bigger worry (“you are in trouble if there’s a passenger onboard without his baggage — and in bigger trouble if there’s baggage onboard without the passenger!”). The net result is that the aircraft is obliged to spend even more time on the ground.
For Capt Gopinath this is an anathema. “I want my planes to be flying, not on the ground! I only make money when my planes are flying!”. Air Deccan’s strategy, therefore, is to get their planes airborne as soon as possible. “We break even only if we fly at least 11 hours a day”, he says, “and we can be profitable only if our planes fly with practically every seat sold”.
To fill up their planes, Air Deccan offers attractive fare packages and uses an innovative online ticketing system (developed in record time by an Indian team) that uses web or mobile communication, virtual private networks and call centres. “Travel agents didn’t like our low fares, and initially refused to sell our tickets. But that didn’t bother us at all!”, Capt Gopinath says, explaining how “we spend a mere 4% on ticket servicing; other airlines spend as much as 23% after you add up commissions to be paid and distribution costs”.
For many of us at NAL the most fascinating aspect of Capt Gopinath’s Thursday evening narrative was how – – just as the Nike ad advises — he “just did it!”. I remember the numerous occasions when Roddam Narasimha (who must surely be Indian civil aviation’s greatest evangelist) and others explained how a low fare airline was not just feasible or profitable — but also a very exciting option for India. Early reports by Raj Mahindra and J P Singh, and the many recent detailed studies by Dr Satish Chandra, contain more compelling evidence to support this view.
I’ve heard many of Capt Gopinath’s arguments articulated before: of how the pilgrim in the Indian will always be looking for a way to reach Vaishno Devi or Amarnath, how the tourist to India would love a heady mix of heritage and wild life, how the 350+ nearly unused Indian airstrips are simply waiting for a suitable plane to land, how it’s simply inconceivable why India has only 500 flights a day, when America has 40,000, why it makes eminent sense to take a plane, instead of a train or bus, to reach the North East …
It’s therefore with great interest that we will watch Capt Gopinath and Air Deccan take their next steps to “just do it”. It would seem that he’s making all the right moves so far: reaching out to Maharashtra, Gujarat and — soon — the NE, to get rid of the ‘regional’ tag; bringing in A320’s to “connect to more unconnected destinations”; aggressively countering the charge that a ‘low cost’ airline is a ‘low safety’ airline; freely drawing on international capital and skills etc.
But things are still far from being hunky-dory. When asked to list the “worrying factors”, Capt Gopinath listed the many “crippling” government regulations, the abysmal airport infrastructure (“we must quickly learn how to push large numbers in and out of airports quickly”) and the reactions of his competitors. However something tells me that the indefatigable captain might just succeed.
2012 Postscript: Capt Gopinath did succeed in popularizing low cost airlines with his Air Deccan model. He was even smarter in selling off his airline to Vijay Mallya’s Kingfisher when it was on a high! Kingfisher is currently in deep coma, but IndiGo successfully copied Capt Gopinath’s idea and is today India’s only profitable airline. So the captain did kind of succeed.