Binoy Prabhakar, ET Bureau Jun 3, 2012, 10.31PM IST
One would expect India’s airlines, thanks to the business’s distinctive capacity for oomph and sexiness, to attract a certain type of cocky businessmen and managers who have a knack for wisecracks and plainspokenness. That has been the case overseas.
Take for example what Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary had to say about his scheme to charge passengers using the toilet: “If someone wanted to pay £5 to go to the toilet I would carry them there myself. I would wipe their bums.” OrDelta Airlines founder CE Woolman’s thoughts about his job: “Running an airline is like having a baby: fun to conceive, but hell to deliver.”
Indian airline bosses have been largely tame in contrast. The most interesting comment from an airline boss for many years was Jet Airways chief Naresh Goyal’s startling revelation that his mother arrived in a dream and ordered him to take back sacked pilots.
Barbs and witticisms have emanated since from his counterparts, but they have been few and far between.Kingfisher Airlines owner Vijay Mallya last year took a dig at low-cost carrier IndiGo. “…it has been downhill for civil aviation except for one airline that defies the odds and claims to be profitable, however unlikely that may be,” he wrote in a memo to employees.
SpiceJet CEO Neil Mills too fired barbs at IndiGo. “It is whether you believe fairy tales,” he said, referring to reports about IndiGo’s much lauded punctuality in an earlier interview with ET on Sunday. “A carrier that is financially insolvent and has a third of its fleet grounded has the best on-time performance among all low-cost carriers in the world. I believe in faith, but this is believing a little too much.”
A quote hunter would have savoured the prospect of a retort from the airline at the receiving end of these jabs and the public slanging match that would ensue. But IndiGo president Aditya Ghosh, 36, has adopted a monk-like silence, as has been his wont in his nearly four-year tenure at the helm.
Ghosh is not the man about town, an aberration of sorts in a high-visibility business and a case study for corporate chiefs not thrilled with the spotlight. Yet, he sees nothing unusual in his averseness to publicity. Passengers, he says, fly IndiGo not because they know the president of the company.
Ghosh with key IndiGo personnel: (Standing left to right) SK Bansal, director, planning logistics & materials, engineering; Alphonso Dass, director, airport operations & customer services; Kailash Rana, director, budgets & financial analysis, finance and accounts; KS Bakshi, director, human resources and Sanjay Kumar, chief commercial officer
(Sitting left to right) Annie Vig, executive assistant to president; Summi Sharma, director, corporate learning & development, I Fly and Sunita Srivastava, vice- president – OCC & Dispatch. Most of them have been with the airline since inception; some have risen through the ranks from the trainee level
The closest Ghosh came to making a statement, though of a different kind, happened last November. Airline bosses in India sought a meeting with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for help to tide over a wrenching crisis. Ghosh, accompanied by IndiGo promoter Rahul Bhatia, drove to the meeting in a CNG-powered Wagon R that sported the colours of their airline. Other airline bosses turned up in swank chauffeur-driven cars, drawing comparisons with US automobile bosses who flew in private jets to seek a bailout from lawmakers.
Sitting in his unassuming office room – a stuffed bookcase, a cupboard filled with pictures of family and colleagues, certificates and laurels of IndiGo that hang on the walls and inviting furniture take up space – Ghosh displays his discomfort with the attention. He refused to be photographed with airhostesses, saying he is “not a Vijay Mallya”.
He agreed to the interview after repeated requests and much persuasion, but you had the feeling he might develop second thoughts and dash out of the room midway. “I find it odd talking about myself,” he says, adding that he would prefer talking about IndiGo.
Asked if driving the Wagon R was a conscious decision, Ghosh, who owns a second-hand Honda Accord and a four-and-a-half-year-old Nissan, says IndiGo doesn’t have large cars. He says there was a choice between the Wagon R, a Swift Dzire and a Winger that day. “The Winger and Dzire are used to transport people within the airport. And so the Wagon R was available. It’s a great car and it had IndiGo colours.”
The IndiGo brand of austerity is the hallmark of every successful global low-cost airline. Southwest Airlines,Spirit Airlines and Ryanair, to name a few, are still flying high thanks to their relentless focus on costs. IndiGo follows the same rulebook. The airline has shunned frequent flier programmes, airport lounges, special check-in counters for a particular class of passengers and TV screens on board.