The ever entertaining Dr VJ Mallya, founder and chairman of Kingfisher Airlines, was in London yesterday giving an address to the Aviation Club.
His first task was to explode a misconception about his home country that it is a poor, emerging nation. Not quite true, says Mallya, typically talking without notes. India is "incredible", he says. "India has always been an exceptionally wealthy country," he says, with huge natural resources and a long history of royal dynasties where huge wealth was taken for granted.
Per capita income for millions is also not as low as some might think. There are some 100 million people that have the earning power equivalent to those in Europe or the US, says Mallya.
Now India is forging ahead. "What is new is that we have broken loose of the shackles of our socialist economy to free and global market integration," says Mallya. "This is unleashing a power always resident in that economy but never allowed to flourish."
It is against this background that Mallya launched Kingfisher Airlines 21 months ago. Now it flys 24 aircraft on 156 flights a day, with another 20 arriving in 2007. This Indian entreprenuer, millionaire and member of parliament, did not take the low-cost airline route for his airline. Mallya believes low-cost and India do not sit well. He believes that high fuel taxes and airport parking charges, along with airport and air traffic control congestion that makes short turnarounds difficult, means following a low-cost model in India is tough. "That's why I say there is no room for a low-cost carrier in India because there is nothing low cost about running an airline in India."
Mallya went for a premium airline brand. There is a two class cabin, business class has a 42in seat pitch, there is television in each seat and passengers are described as guests. "From the beginning we created Kingfisher as a true consumer product and as a true consumer experience," says Mallya. "What I say to my people is that we are not in the airline business, we are in the aviation hospitality business."
Despite what must be a massive call on his time from other parts of his empire, Mallya appears to be extremely hands on at Kingfisher Airlines. He interviews every single guest facing employee personally. He receives an SMS message every time an aircraft takes off from the airport manager. This helps focus staff as they must explain every departure that is late by over five minutes. "That's playing on their mind," he says, as the manager wonders what the chairman's reaction might be to a late departing aircraft. "That's playing on their mind big time."
Mallya is also a great ideas man. After visiting his optician in San Francisco he noticed him using a small bottle of liquid to clean glasses. "How much does that cost?" asked Mallya. "75 cents" was the reply. Mallya bought a box and got them onto his aircraft. Cabin crew offer to clean the glasses of surprised guests.
Mallya also carries a steamer on his private jet to press his creased trousers when arriving at a destination. Hang on, thought Mallya, this is a good thing, so each aircraft has one too. "When guests see this done in front of their eyes it blows their mind. It's a small thing but with such a humongous impression."