Charter trips for business or pleasure
As India’s economy expands, air travel is playing an increasingly vital role. For most Indians, that means the unprecedented availability of low-cost air travel. But for those for whom time is money, chartering a private aircraft is becoming more of a popular alternative.
The Business Aviation market is growing even more rapidly than the airline sector, according to Sandeep Bhatt, CEO of Religare Voyages, one of India’s leading private aircraft charter operators. “The sky’s the limit!” he said. “Right now demand is outstripping supply.”
Religare Voyages is part of a large family of companies under the Religare Group. In the travel market, Religare Voyages aims to offer a one-stop shop service, encompassing a corporate and leisure travel agency, air charter with a fleet of company-owned business jets, turboprops and helicopters, as well as training for cabin crew and technical staff, consultancy, and soon, flight simulation training.
The numbers are impressive. A recent report by the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA) predicts a major growth in the General Aviation sector in India over the next 10 years. The sale of new aircraft is likely to be worth up to $12 billion.
Mumbai airport alone handled 13,290 non-scheduled flights in 2010-11, a major increase on the 8,245 movements handled in 2006. Every day, an average 38 General Aviation airplanes take off and land there. Last year, Mumbai handled 30,000 passengers who flew on private or non-scheduled flights.
Mumbai is a major hub for Religare Voyages, as it is the first Indian airport to have a dedicated Business Aviation terminal. This terminal offers both domestic and international departures, enabling travelers to skip long immigration and security queues at the main international terminal building. Religare Voyages also has strategic hubs in Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad, and licenses to operate worldwide.
Business or Pleasure?
“Corporate travel is the biggest part of our business, bigger than leisure travel,” said Sandeep, “but there is a gradual move towards more leisure related movement also.” Senior managers, particularly those running larger businesses, increasingly rely on private jets when traveling for meetings, site visits and presentations, or when they do multi-city road shows or corporate events.
“A number of our smaller aircraft and helicopters are used for regular visits to factories and manufacturing sites which are usually located in remote areas where there are smaller airfields,” commented Sandeep. The cost is higher than using scheduled flights, but the other advantages outweigh the price. “The time saved, plus the ability to work on board means price is not an issue.”
The leisure travel market is also growing, thanks to increased numbers of people with larger disposable incomes who also want to travel at their preferred time, and in privacy. This group comprises mainly industrialists, senior corporate leaders, Bollywood stars and other celebrities.
Charters are also becoming popular with foreign tourists coming into India. They typically come into one of the metro cities and then use private jets for internal travel. Popular tourist destinations such as the Taj Mahal and the beaches of Goa are typical ports of call.
“Within India we do a lot of charters around the ‘golden triangle’ region (Agra and Jaipur),” Sandeep revealed, “as well as a number of cities in Rajasthan, Kerala and Goa. We also take groups to areas of special interest such as Jammu and Kashmir, Amritsar and Dharamsala, where people go to take the blessings of the Dalai Lama.”
Religare’s two 17-seater Beechcraft 1900D turboprops are popular for group travel, and Sandeep added that the company is considering adding a larger jet with up to 18 seats in the future to handle similar business.
Increasingly, affluent Indian travelers are chartering private jets for trips abroad, to popular international destinations such as London, Paris, Mauritius, the Maldives, New York, Dubai and Bangkok. “It’s typical for five or six couples to charter a private jet for a holiday together,” explained Sandeep.
As the market grows, Sandeep expects the biggest challenge to be meeting the standards of the in-flight service once the passengers are on the ground. “The growth of scheduled operators both domestic and international has grown manifold in recent years and our major airports are under pressure,” he said.
“As the cost of private air charter is higher, clients do expect a luxury experience from the boarding point to disembarkation. While we can take care of our in-flight services, due to certain restrictions and facilities [un]available - especially in India - we are not in a position to provide the same levels of comfort on the ground.”
He’s hopeful that more dedicated business airports might be opened using existing military airfields, and Religare would be interested in running business terminals at such airports under a public-private partnership. (This would certainly be a welcome development as business travelers would have access to dedicated lounges and chauffeurdriven cars to the dedicated airports.)
The Religare Voyages’ complement of aircraft is the biggest wholly-owned fleet of its kind in India. “We have made sure we have a good mix of aircraft – our fleet is very flexible,” said Sandeep. The company was the first in India to take the Dassault Falcon 7X - one of the most sophisticated business jets in the world.
Even though Religare has the largest in-house fleet in India, demand for private travel means it sometimes needs to outsource aircraft from other operators. Sandeep is looking to grow the fleet, but at the moment is holding off making any purchases as leasing might prove a better option in the current economic climate.
“The flight crew and pilots are hand-picked from the industry, as is the service and travel staff. Having all the licenses and accreditation necessary for itinerary planning, implementation, ground handling as well as for facilitating visas, Religare Voyages is capable of providing a customized experience that is competitive and on a par with the best global standards,” Sandeep promises.