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Last Updated: Friday, 13 October 2006, 11:45 GMT 12:45 UK
Fly Air Slovakia for Punjabi experience
By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Delhi

Air Slovakia
Mr Sidhu wants to make it a 'Punjabi airline'
An Indian-born businessman has purchased a private central European airline for an undisclosed amount.

Harjinder Singh Sidhu, who lives in the UK and is a British passport holder, bought Air Slovakia, a small privately owned airline based in the capital, Bratislava last week, it has emerged.

His son, Riqbal 'Rocky' Singh, told the BBC News website that his father wants to transform the 60-employee Air Slovakia into a "Punjabi experience".

That means using crew, food and in-flight entertainment from the northern Indian state of Punjab and using regional headquarters based in the Punjabi city of Jalandhar.

There will be "dedicated" planes flying into Punjab too, he said.

"The bulk of our passengers are from Punjab and Punjabis from Europe. So we want to brand Air Slovakia as an airline with Punjabi ambience and flavour. Our stewards, airhostesses will be from Punjab as also the in-flight food," Mr Singh, who is a director at the airline, said.

But what does Mr Singh say about an airline catering to passengers from Punjab still being named Air Slovakia?

"The airline will have a second name of sorts when it comes to India. All tickets to and from India will be sold under a Punjabi name which will also be branded on the planes," Mr Singh said.

The airline's newest London Stansted to Amritsar flight, carrying its new 56-year-old owner, takes off on Friday evening and is due at its destination on Saturday morning.

Passenger complaints

Air Slovakia presently has a three plane fleet - two Boeing 757s and one Boeing 737. It was founded in 1993 by a group of Slovak businessmen.

Harjinder Singh Sidhu
Punjab and Slovakia will be taken global
Harjinder Singh Sidhu

The new owners now plan to buy or lease six more planes by the middle of next year and expand operations.

The 'Indian' Air Slovakia will fly to Milan, Bratislava, Birmingham, London, and Cologne in Germany. Return ticket prices are expected to range from $530 to $1100.

Airline passenger websites do not report a very happy experience of travelling on Air Slovakia so far.

"My advice would be not to travel on Air Slovakia, very poor service, very cramped, not enough leg room, staff rude, food poor.. Air Slovakia leave you stranded and offer you no help," complains a passenger on one website.

Another passenger wrote: "The air stewardesses grasp of English was very poor and they had no concept of any other languages like Punjabi or Hindi which was very unusual considering all the passengers were of Asian origin."

Mr Singh admits that there are "service issues with passenger satisfaction" that need to be addressed.

Air Slovakia
Air Slovakia was started in 1993

"I think the Slovakians did not fully understand the needs of Punjabi passengers. But things have improved after we took over the airline."

The new owner, Harjinder Singh Sidhu, is a Punjab-born businessman who left India at the age of 16 and has "commercial properties and petrol" businesses based in UK, his associates say.

He has also been running chartered flights between London and Punjab for the past three years, and selling Air Slovakia tickets out of the UK since last year.

Riqbal Singh says his father began "financially assisting" Air Slovakia this May before deciding to buy it out.

"'There's no fun in running an airline like this. Let's take it over,' my father said. So we took it over."

One report says the father paid $30m for the airline, but the son is not confirming that - "Let's say its in that region."

What is also unclear is how Air Slovakia was faring financially when the Singhs took it over.

"Let us say it is about to enter puberty. It needs some tender love and care," says Mr Singh with a flourish.

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