Chasing bold ambitions with a global vision

Hiram To

Airline chairman keeps his feet on the ground while reaching for the stars

HIGH UP AT Air-India's head office in Mumbai, an architectural landmark that overlooks the scenic Queen's Necklace that frames the Arabian Sea, V. Thulasidas, chairman and managing director of the airline, raises a smile at the request of the Post's photographer.

Mr Thulasidas, formerly chief secretary to the government of Tripura, took up the important post of looking after India's national carrier towards the end of last year.

A stern-looking gentleman, Mr Thulasidas offered us another side of his personality as the photographer had him posing for the camera by an exquisite carved bureau, which the airline's founder, J.R.D. Tata, also once used.

The 21st century marks a new era for Air-India, where expansion and an enhanced profile are being planned. 'Our focus for the coming year is growth and quality,' Mr Thulasidas said. 'For the past 12 years there has been very little growth. It is imperative for Air-India to raise our profile. That means adding more capacity for our fleet and stations in our network.

'The other focus is on quality, because we are known as a premium airline, and we would like to recapture that level of excellence.

'The slowing down over the past decade was partly attributed to economic and financial reasons. The company incurred losses in the past but we came out of that.

'There was also the possibility that the government of India could privatise the airline, and we were for some time on a list of the considered enterprises. When we were finally off the list, the uncertainty cleared.

'Over the period, there was very little expansion to our capacity, while growth was as little as 2 per cent at one time. All this time, traffic in and out of India boomed. Our nationals, travelling out of the country for business and leisure, account for a large part of the airline's business. We need to catch up with the growing number of passengers and catch up with the market.'

Although the key markets for Air-India have traditionally been the United States and Europe, the Gulf, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia are also seen as priority markets. Demand for business and tourism travel is increasing.

'Between the US and India there are now some 23 flights a week and they will increase by another four to eight flights in a year's time. The large American market continues to be a large part of our business. We recently introduced flights between Mumbai and Los Angeles. This is the first time in Air-India's history that we fly to the US west coast. Not even during the airline's heydays in the past were there direct flights to the region.

'Passengers can leave Mumbai in the morning, and reach Los Angeles in the afternoon, on the same day. For the return journey, you leave in the evening and reach Mumbai on the following morning. We are running three flights a week, and we plan to increase the frequency to five, and after that, to daily flights. The Mumbai-Los Angeles connection is a major step for the airline. We are also planning to fly to San Francisco by next year. We also hope to have the Chicago route flying daily in the future from our current six times a week flights.'

Air-India already flies 'double-daily' to New York City to both JFK and Newark airports. 'We received many requests to fly to Texas and Washington,' he said. 'Houston and Dallas are becoming strong IT and medical centres, and airport authorities are convincing us of the benefits.

'Flights to Canada are also likely to be resumed due to strong passenger demand. We may start with Toronto, to be followed by Vancouver.'

Business from China is another new horizon that Air-India has set its sights on. 'Last December, we introduced the very important route to Shanghai,' Mr Thulasidas said. 'Right now, we operate two flights, and we have just agreed with the Chinese authorities to increase to three flights a week.

'We would very much like to fly Beijing daily as well. I believe there is a great deal of potential for air transport between India and China, and Air-India would initially focus on these two main China cities, with hopefully other places to follow.'

Although the head of Air-India is striding to expand the company, he is modest in how far he can forge ahead.

'I have been told of a lot of changes in the airline business. I am not looking that far ahead right now, maybe two to three years first, and then five years after that,' he said.

'We recently reformulated our corporate vision, which is for Air-India to find its place among the top airlines in Asia and the world, both in terms of size and quality.

'Our first aim is to give the best products and services to our travellers, while we will also grow at the same time. We want to be able to achieve that within the next two years.'

Next summer, the airline plans to launch a subsidiary premium brand for price-sensitive markets that include Bangkok, Singapore, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur.