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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May, 2005, 10:38 GMT 11:38 UK
India flies into budget air travel era

By Sanjoy Majumder
BBC News, Mumbai

Mumbai airport
More airlines are crowding Indian airports
Paresh Shah, a 30-something Indian fund manager, was planning his family's annual summer holidays for later this month.

The Shahs had travelled to the mountains last year and were hoping to visit the coast off the southern Indian state of Kerala this time.

But a brief conversation with his travel agent changed Mr Shah's mind.

A round-trip ticket from Mumbai (Bombay) to Trivandrum would cost each Shah almost 20,000 rupees ($460).

Instead, the travel agent offered Mr Shah a round-trip to Singapore for 14,000 rupees ($322).

"Why travel to Kerala when we can go abroad," he says.

The Shahs are travelling on the latest operation of India's largest private airline, Jet Airways, which recently launched flights between India and Singapore and Malaysia.

This month, Jet also begins daily services from Mumbai to London's Heathrow airport at an inaugural round-trip fare of 23,000 rupees ($529).

By the middle of next year, air travellers between the two cities will have a choice of nearly eight daily flights on airlines such as Air India, Jet, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and British Midland.

We are going to have a single class which will combine the experience of business class with economy
Ajit Bhagchandani
General Manager, Kingfisher Airlines
It is one indicator of the size of India's aviation market which is growing exponentially.

The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation estimates that the domestic Indian market will add five million passengers every year for the next five years, growing to 45 million passengers by 2010.

The Indian travel industry is expected to generate 10 million jobs over the next decade.

"I estimate that India will need to invest $35bn in new aircraft purchases over the next 20 years," Dinesh Keskar, Vice-President of Trading Boeing, said in a recent interview.

Flamboyant Kingfisher

It has made the industry one of the fastest growing in India and brought in several new players.

In a building close to Mumbai's international airport I watched last minute preparations for the launch of India's latest airline.

Vijay Mallya (Photo: Kingfisher Airlines)
Vijay Mallya (centre) is planning a new on-air experience

It's the headquarters of Kingfisher Airlines, launched by one of the country's most flamboyant businessmen, beer baron Vijay Mallya.

Mr Mallya is often described as an Indian Richard Branson and has promised to "redefine the experience of air travel in India".

"Our aircraft are going to have in-flight entertainment on every seat, excellent cuisine and a cabin crew of fashion models who are going to walk the ramp at fashion shows," the airlines general manager for in-flight services, Ajit Bhagchandani, told the BBC News website.

"We are going to have a single class, Kingfisher class, which will combine the experience of business class with economy."

Mr Bhagchandani quit his job at Qatar Airways a few months ago to help train and develop the airline's cabin crew.

In a hastily put-together class room, a group of young women practice on board safety demonstrations.

From the back of the room, Anjali, also a former Qatar Airways employee, instructs the group.

Kingfisher crew training
Kingfisher crewmember gets grooming and etiquette tips
"Hold your head straight, NEVER point at the passenger, smile," she says.

"We've given the girls special speech training and also lessons on etiquette," she says.

"They've even been taught how to walk on the aisles. We want to make a real impact."

"We've even brought in experts to give them lessons on grooming and skin care," adds Mr Bhagchandani.

Price wars

That the budget bug has caught on is evident also at the staid headquarters of India's state-owned carrier, Air India.

Once described as one of the world's finest airlines, Air India has suffered from a loss of image in recent years.

But last week, the airline launched its own low-cost carrier, Air India Express with a fleet of brightly coloured brand-new Boeing 737s.

The new airline will launch point-to-point services between India and the Gulf, concentrating on the large numbers of expatriate Indians working in countries such as the UAE, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain.

These fares will revolutionise the market
Jitendra Bhargava
Director (PR) Air India
"Globally low-cost carriers have been a resounding success," Air India's Director (PR) Jitendra Bhargava told the BBC News website.

The airline is offering fares as low as 2,750 rupees ($63) between Abu Dhabi and Mumbai.

"These fares will revolutionise the market," says Mr Bhargava.

The single-class no frills airline will offer free food and water but charge for alcohol, in-flight entertainment also sell advertising space inside the aircraft.

To cut operating costs, cabin crew are being based locally, tickets are being sold over the internet and airport services are being outsourced.

Jobs boom

The launch of several new airlines has resulted in a massive spurt in aviation-industry jobs.

Ranveer Jhangiani, 28, earned his commercial pilot's license five years ago but couldn't find a job.

"For almost two-and-a-half years I worked in a flight kitchen and just ensured my license remained valid," he says.

Air India Express (Photo: Air India Express)
Air India Express is concentrating on Gulf traffic
Then, in May 2004, he got a job with Air Deccan, one of India's first budget airlines.

With the sudden increase in the number of airlines, pilots are in tremendous demand.

"Everybody is being poached," says Mr Jhangiani who has since left Air Deccan to join state-owned Indian Airlines.

Recently, another Indian airline, Air Sahara, had to cancel several flights because of a shortage of flying crew, after 10 pilots left the airline to join Air India Express.

Since then, the airlines have signed an anti-poaching agreement to prevent their employees from being head-hunted.

Despite the boom in the industry, many are sceptical of the long-term survival of low-cost airlines.

"Aviation is a very capital intensive business," says one airline pilot.

"With rising oil prices, thin margins and intense competition, it is impossible to sustain such low fares."

But for now, thousands of Indians such as Paresh Shah and his family are riding the boom.

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22 Jun 04 |  Business
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21 Dec 04 |  Business

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