New Delhi: Continental was the first airline to announce non-stop flights from India to Newark in 2005. Cut to 2007, two more airlines have jumped into the fray and Air India will soon debut. How does this affect Continental’s growth plans? Taru Bahl finds out in an interview with Laurent Recoura, Continental’s senior country director in India
As Senior Director, India, Laurent Recoura is responsible for the overall management responsibility for Continental’s sales and marketing and is fascinated with the high growth aviation trajectory that India is currently experiencing. He relocated from France in 2005. Excerpts from the interview:
Q: What gives Continental an edge over the competition?
A: Continental is the only major airline with a hub in New York area. Newark is a convenient airport for international travellers and provides easy access to midtown Manhattan. Continental Airlines and US Helicopter Corporation have partnered to provide exclusive and elite 8-minute shuttle service between Newark Liberty International Airport and Manhattan for time-sensitive business travellers.
This exclusive hourly service is provided on premium 8-seat Sikorsky helicopters at a cost of $159. Flights land at terminal C, passengers clear TSA security at the heliport without going through additional screening. Of course, there is a baggage restriction.
Having the only true hub that is both domestic and international is critical. Also, the way we time our flights into Newark and back are way better than what the competition offers. Passengers get in by morning and have the entire day to spend in business meetings as compared to getting in late evening and spending the night in a hotel, adding to costs. Connectivity to 230 cities within the US, Canada, Latin American and the Caribbean helps us cater to customer segments, including the high traffic that comes in the “visiting friends and relatives” category.
Q: What is your pricing model for India?
A: In India we are operating a Boeing 777-200 aircraft, which has a non-stop service with 48 business class and 235 economy class seats. Our current pricing is about Rs45,840 plus taxes for the Delhi sector; the Mumbai-Newark flight will have almost the same price tag. We plan to operate the Mumbai service four times a week initially, and then increase the frequency gradually to a daily service. Our pricing is variable since it is dependent on various market factors.
Q: Will you have route sharing arrangement with any other airline in India?
A: We are in talks, but for now we are quite satisfied with the current situation and are in no hurry to push it.
Q: After Delhi and Mumbai, do you plan to link other Indian cities with the US?
A: Within a span of two years, we will have two cities connected to Newark. Our Delhi-Newark sector already has an 80% load factor for both business and economy classes. This is a pretty good scenario. The logical thought would be to link up other cities and we will do so, but not immediately.
Q: What about your cabin crew staff? Have you recruited Indians and if not, does the American staff go through a culture training on India?
A: Presently, our entire in-flight staff is recruited through a highly professional hiring system in the US. They are based in New York and have undertaken grooming and sensitization with an India focus before being put on the flights here.
Q: Do you see passenger fares coming down as a result of increasing competition and a number of low-cost airlines offering discounted/bargain fares in the coming months?
A: Crowding of the skies in India has seen demand go up manifold. Competition is good and customers have a choice. But at the same time they must be discerning enough to look at the entire package including timings, connectivity/links, service quality, aircraft quality and maintenance, track record of an airline and the overall image of the carrier. We are not desperate to pander to market tastes and slash our prices. We are confident of our product and we also feel that the pie is large enough to accommodate all players. The key is that the country’s infrastructure should be supportive enough.
Q: How do you think of the government’s response to airport privatization and upgrading of aviation infrastructure in India?
A: We have been extremely happy with the Civil Aviation Minister, Praful Patel’s hands-on approach and his ability to look ahead and get numerous initiatives off the ground. He has a complete understanding of the situation and feels that unless a private-public partnership is forged, all future plans in the aviation sector will be forced to make a crash landing! Exchange programmes with the US and training of ATC staff are on the anvil. We are also looking forward to the operationalizing of the third runway at Delhi airport by 2008.
Q: Is there a conscious attempt to woo the business traveller?
A: Indeed, they are our prime customers and we are satisfied with the way we have created a basket offering of services that cater to their need. We expect the premium
business community to strongly patronize our non-stop flights, soaking in the ambience, service and pampering that is typical of the Continental brand.
Q: Do you see online ticketing for international travel becoming the norm?
A: In a country like India, recent months have seen a surge in online bookings for domestic flights. For international flights it will take a little longer, though with the big players in this segment likely to move in and the changing profile of the traveller, this may change soon. We welcome it because it means greater efficiency and productivity for us and the customer. Meanwhile, we offer online bookings at our centers.
Q: How do you plan to woo the Indian traveller?
A: We will have a new video system on demand with more than 250 Hindi movies. Majority of our foreign films will also have English sub-titles. We already serve vegetarian and non vegetarian Indian meals on board prepared by expert Indian chefs in New York and India. We have kept the Indian sensitivities in mind and do not serve beef at all. Traditional Indian music is already incorporated in the world music audio channel. There is an individual seatback video screen for every passenger (economy class included) and the Mumbai route will have AC power outlets with no need for an adapter to operate a PC or other approved devices.
Also, our helicopter shuttle between Newark and Manhattan will see a price revision which we will announce in a couple of weeks. This is something the Indian business class can look out for.