New Delhi: For many months now, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd’s chairman Vijay Mallya has told anybody willing to listen about how his airline will start flying internationally really soon.
And the fact that the Indian government currently won’t allow an airline to fly overseas until it has completed five years of service?
Just a technicality, Mallya has told reporters over and over again, most recently on Tuesday, at a US-India aviation summit where he was a keynote speaker.
The two-year-old United Breweries Ltd-owned airline would try an innovative plan—instead of waiting another three years before the Indian government grants it permission to fly overseas, Mallya planned to register an airline in the US, and fly it into India, nimbly circumventing Indian law.
But on Wednesday, Marion Blakeley, the head of the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), said she felt it would be quite difficult for Kingfisher Airlines to get the regulatory approvals necessary from the US government. “If (Kingfisher wants to be) a US airline, then there is an issue of foreign ownership,” she said. The United States government, like India’s, does not allow foreigners to own airlines. Mallya is an Indian citizen, but has some family members who may have US citizenship, she said.
Blakeley said while she has had several meetings with Mallya, the issue has not been raised, and instead asked reporters for details on Kingfisher’s plans.
A senior FAA official confirmed that as of now, Kingfisher has not made an application on this subject. Blakeley echoed the opinion of India’s civil aviation authorities. Asked about the possibility of Kingfisher Airlines taking advantage of this loophole, a senior official at the ministry of civil aviation said he didn’t see it happening anytime soon.
“It’s not that easy to get registered in the US,” said the official, who cannot be named because the entire briefing was held off-the-record. “But, if somehow he can do it, then the Indian government will have to let him fly to India under the open-skies agreement.”
When contacted, two separate spokespersons at Kingfisher Airlines declined to comment, but on Tuesday, Mallya had expressed frustration at the current regulations to an audience of influential Indian and American aviation officials.
“There are foreign airlines that fly to India on their inaugural flights and take passengers away from us, but I have to wait five years before I can fly abroad?” he complained. “I can fly from Delhi to Chennai, but not from Chennai to Colombo (Sri Lanka).”
In preparation for international flights, the airline has ordered at least 15 new wide-bodied Airbus jets, including A330s, A340s, A350s and five of the mammoth A380s, to be delivered starting early 2008. Those planes are designed for long-range flights, and would be prohibitively expensive if used on domestic routes.
Separately, several New York-based Kingfisher employees held meetings on Tuesday with officials of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, an agency which operates the John F. Kennedy and LaGuardia international airports in New York, and the Newark Liberty Airport in New Jersey. Those airports make up almost 55% of the passenger traffic between the US and India, with Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport garnering a lion’s share of the rest.
US aviation officials said the challenges before Kingfisher mirrored those of Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways, an airline and airline owner that Kingfisher and Mallya are often compared to.
Virgin Atlantic had registered a US company named Virgin America Inc., but getting regulatory approval to fly in, and from, the US took several years.
“There is a long process and it’s a huge challenge,” said Nicholas A. Sabatani, an associate administrator of FAA.