New Delhi: Almost a decade after Captain G.R. Gopinath sold his start-up airline Air Deccan to Vijay Mallya, the Bengaluru based-businessman is back in the game with the low-cost carrier again.
The ground realities, however, have changed since his maiden foray. Mallya is absconding from the country, the reasons for which Air Deccan was bought no more exist and Gopinath’s priorities are now different.
“I still miss Air Deccan," Gopinath told Mint on Thursday adding that metros dominate passenger traffic in India.
But, this flying pattern has to change.
“I have always said connectivity is key to growth and the hinterland of India deep in it’s bowels needs to be air linked to metros for equitable growth," he said adding, “Air Deccan had the largest such network even bigger than Air India 15 years ago. We hope we can do our bit again."
Indeed, when it was bought over by Mallya, Air Deccan had 43 planes, 22% market share by passengers and 350 daily flights to 61 destinations. It had also become famous for flying the common man. That was its logo. Air Deccan used to offer cheap fares starting Re1 (excluding taxes and surcharges) often angering its rivals.
In 2017, the government’s new scheme Udan—Ude Desh ka Har Nagrik—has also been positioned itself to achieve the same. Passengers need to pay Rs2,500 for one- hour flights. The focus is to connect smaller regional towns in the hinterland.
When Gopinath had struck a deal in 2007 with Mallya he had hoped the two brands and airlines will remain separate and predicted a collapse if they were merged.
Merged they were as only on Air Deccan licence could be used under government rules for Kingfisher fly abroad and Mallya wasn’t very fond of low-cost airline concept compared with his luxury product.
Government rules then mandated five years of local flying before international debut. These rules were scrapped last year.
“If it was a merger, then it was deemed to fail as there cannot be any fit between the two companies—culturally or in terms of the business model," Gopinath had said in 2007 adding, “We are good friends and enjoy drinking a beer together. But that’s about all. Our vision and philosophy are totally different."
A decade on, Kingfisher has gone belly up and investigating agencies have launched probe into the airline’s finances even as Mallya has absconded to London even though it owes banks almost $1.5 billion. His liquor empire is mostly sold.
Gopinath knows he has to start afresh. He said he will use smaller 18-19 seater planes to connect several remote locations of the country and side-stepping the big boys in business.
The airline has won rights to fly Delhi-Agra, Kolkata-Burnpur, Kolkata-Cooch Behar, Bagdogra-Durgapur, Kolkata-Jamshedpur, Kolkata-Rourkela, Shillong from various cities in the north east, Dehradun-Pantnagar and Delhi-Pantnagar, Mumbai-Kolhapur, Mumbai-Jalgaon, Mumbai-Nashik, Pune-Nashik, Mumbai-Sholapur
An analyst welcomed Gopinath’s re-entry in the civil aviation sector.
“We welcome him back and wish him great luck but it will be a tough task to make it work," said Kapil Kaul, chief executive officer, south Asia, CAPA.
Gopinath said he hoped to improve air connectivity in his second stint.
“I hope we will able to do justice to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision of connecting India. Udan is a transformative scheme," he said.