Five years ago, Richard Branson, the maverick British tycoon and founder of the Virgin group, rode on an elephant to announce the arrival of Virgin Atlantic Airways in Delhi.
Five years on, the magnate's trademark flashiness was missing during the inaugural Virgin Atlantic flight to Mumbai on March 31. Instead, media persons in the city were treated to a sedate Branson, dressed in dhoti-kurta, patiently answering all the questions at a press meet called on the occasion.
The only element of differentiation was the folk-dance and music that Branson and his team were greeted to when they touched down at Sahar International Airport in the city.
Showman Branson was definitely not in view, but his astute business sense was. "India is a big market and it has been poorly served," he said. "Travellers have to go to third countries such as the ones in the Middle East, if they have to reach the UK."
Virgin, to begin with, will operate flights thrice a week from London to Mumbai and back. Plans are to move to a daily service to capitalise on the traffic moving in and out of the cities. "That is the only way you can build loyalty and bring air fares down," said Branson.
Rival British Airways has daily flights from London to Mumbai, which only builds the pressure on Virgin to move to a daily service as quickly as possible. "We are talking to the government to acquire relevant permissions for the same. Hopefully, the talks should be completed in the next two weeks," says Branson.
Besides, the carrier is looking to commence operations from other cities in the near future including flights from Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Amritsar. "We have about seven cities on our radar screen," says Branson. "Much depends on the outcome of our talks with the government, and how they allocate the sectors to us."
Currently, Virgin has ten flight services operational from its Delhi circuit, and the carrier hopes to take the tally to 21 with the launch of its Mumbai chapter. "We have 200 people in India currently, which includes a cabin crew of 90. Over time, as we expand, this figure will go up," says Andrew Fyfe, regional manager, India & Middle East, Virgin Atlantic.
The carrier hopes to draw traffic in Mumbai on the strength of its brand proposition, which revolves around "innovation", "irreverence" etc. "That will be critical to our survival here, how we bring the glamour back to flying, especially in a scenario where you have a number of budget carriers waiting in the wings," says Fyfe.
The outlay for a traveler from Mumbai to London and back is Rs 27,000, while the Delhi fare is Rs 26,500, which will go up to Rs 30,500 in mid-April. "Despite the hike, we have an 88 per cent and 60 per cent confirmed load in April and May on the Delhi-London-Delhi route, while Mumbai, which we began selling in the first week of March, will have a 70 per cent and 55 per cent load in the two summer months," adds Fyfe.
Apart from India, Virgin will commence operations in Cuba and Bahamas in May/June '05. The carrier is also helping the Nigerian government to build the country's first national airline in an alliance, where the carrier has a 49 per cent stake. Virgin will also operate more flights to the US this summer.
© 2005 agencyfaqs!