Billionaire aviation entrepreneur Richard Branson is once again betting on India’s aviation market, even though he is “sad” that some “very good airlines have disappeared” in the country.
“The airline industry is not an easy industry [to operate in],” said Branson, founder, Virgin Atlantic at a media roundtable event in Mumbai on Wednesday, while referring to the grounding of Jet Airways early this year. Branson’s Virgin Atlantic had a codeshare agreement with Jet Airways, which operated three daily flights from Mumbai to London.
“But this has happened even in the United Kingdom. In the 35 years that I have been in business many airlines went bankrupt—Pan American, TWA,” said Branson, adding that Virgin Atlantic has survived because it has a distinctive “panache” and “style”.
Post the exit of Jet Airways from the market, Virgin Atlantic started operating direct flights between Mumbai and London from October this year. This is the third time that Virgin Atlantic has commenced direct operations between the two cities, after shutting down operations previously due to mounting losses. “This is third time lucky, and the last time...not going to have a fourth time,” Branson said. “India is becoming a very important part of Virgin Atlantic."
Virgin Atlantic has been operating in India for 20 years, with an uninterrupted daily service from New Delhi to London. Next year the airline would add a double daily service on the same route, tripling its overall flights to India. “India is forecast to be the third-largest aviation market by 2025 and so it's obvious for us to be here. We are building the bridge from India to the UK and beyond,” said Juha Jarvinen, EVP commercial at Virgin Atlantic.
Commenting on the airline’s renewed service to Mumbai, Jarvinen, said, “We have seen a phenomenal start. We are almost full…with very healthy returns.” According to him, the total seat capacity between London and Mumbai is down 40% even after the launch of the airline's daily service. In the context of new Indian airline partnerships, he added, “we are actively looking for new options, but have no preference yet.”
Asked if he was interested in investing in state-run Air India, which the Indian government is desperately trying to sell, Branson said, “I have thought about it in the past; I’m glad I didn’t because it has been a tough market.”