At home with the Goyals

An invitation to an airline chief executive’s home for a press reception is a rare thing. So it was with relish that I accepted the kind offer of Naresh Goyal, the irrepressible founding chairman of India’s Jet Airways, to attend a little soiree at his house in London earlier this week.

At the behest of his new PR gurus, London’s Cohn & Wolfe, Mr Goyal was bubbling about his Airbus A340 services between London and India, which only started up in May 2005 and are already achieving about a 75% load factor and capturing some 23% of London-India marketshare.

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I imagine Mr Goyal does not have your average airline chairman’s pad. In fact, the London home of this Indian entreprenuer, who is on paper a billionaire, is in one of the capital’s most exclusive locations overlooking Regent’s Park. The entry road is packed with black BMWs, Mercedes-Benz’s, Range Rover’s and all manner of large cars. Next door to his house a plaque tells visitors that British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams lived there during the middle of the last century.

The lavishly furnished reception room at Mr Goyal’s house is bustling with activity. The delicious scent of the food, prepared by its London-based in-flight caterer Bombay Brasserie, wafts around the gold mirrors and opulent sofas. The wine is taken from its on-board selection. Everyone is there, including Mrs Anita Goyal, the head of the house, and Jet’s executive vice-president marketing & sales, except Mr Goyal. Guess what, this workaholic is on the phone. And there is nothing better that he likes to do than talk – mostly about his airline, definitely about doing deals and making connections, and always with the enthusiam of a newly born pup.

Along with a couple of keen scribes I corner Mr Goyal, firing off questions about his international ambitions and the pending takeover of Air Sahara. He is in his element, chatting about his airline’s plans, calling across the room and breaking into the conversations of his other staff for details we ask for that he doesn’t know.

So what did we learn?
* Jet is going to begin serving Amritsar to the north of capital Delhi in June with daily services from London with an Airbus A330 leased from ILFC.
* Mr Goyal expects to obtain Indian regulatory approval for its $500 million purchase of Air Sahara in a few weeks time.
* The Air Sahara purchase is mainly to acquire 22 aircraft parking slots at Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, and other infrastructure like hangars and landing slots, giving Jet “five years of growth” in India’s capacity constrained market. It includes no liabilities.
* The combined Air Sahara and Jet Airways will have annual revenues of around $2 billion.
* Jet has $445 million set aside in an escrow account to finance the deal.
Mr Goyal says a few words to the assembled gathering as the evening comes to a close. He has a lot of time for the UK press: “We like you because you don’t write bad things about us.” Compared to the Indian press corps that is – anyone who has been on the receiving end of the Indian media, which makes a pack of hyenas look friendly, knows what he means.

And within five years he wants Jet to emulate his airline idols – Cathay Pacific Airways and Singapore Airlines.

So I say my goodbyes, and look forward to the next invitation to look through the keyhole at an airline CEO’s house. To be honest, I think I might have a long wait.

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