India is one of the world’s fastest-growing large economies (recently posting GDP growth of 7.8%), is a vast nation (the world’s seventh largest), and has a diverse landscape that is slow to navigate due to ageing, overburdened transport infrastructure.
Demand is there for business leaders looking to make multiple meetings in as little time as possible – and business aviation carries that promise. By flying from smaller airports at times that suit you, and arriving closer to your destination, a private jet can be a personal time machine – clawing back valuable hours that would otherwise be spent in transit or waiting for your next commercial connection.
The facts speak for themselves. While business jet demand in the US – the world’s largest market by far – fell by 4% year-on-year in August 2023, it grew by 7% in India. Not only that, but according to data from aviation specialists WINGX, India is the top-performing market in Asia and has recorded a staggering triple-digit growth versus 2019 (the pre-pandemic benchmark).
Armed with those statistics, you would think that India is a magnet for private jet operators, but you would be wrong. The country is lagging when it comes to adopting and accommodating business jets. But that may be set to change.
Government regulation holding back progress
Part of the problem is government regulation. In the global market, NetJets is the biggest player in private jets. Backed by Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway, the company has just announced a US$5 billion investment in 250 more aircraft to add to its fleet. But here’s the problem – NetJets’ business model is based on fractional ownership, where you pay to own a share in the aircraft. That model is not currently allowed in India.
“While fractional ownership globally is a well-established sector, in India the same is yet to be approved by the government,” says Kuruvilla speaking exclusively to Business Chief. “We know that the government is working on it and legislation could be passed shortly.
“The IndiaJets model is a first of its kind Fractional Membership model, tailor-made for our market. We believe that Fractional Ownership, when approved, and Fractional Membership will co-exist in India to straddle the needs of both the large companies as well as the MSME sector.”
Regulation is one of three factors Kuruvilla believes is holding business aviation back in India. The second is business jet financing. Globally, this is one of the key growth drivers for the industry but is very much in its infancy in India. Then there is the mindset.
“Indian business leaders are financially very prudent and look at private jets as an extravagant indulgence,” he says. “But over the past few months we have been able to demonstrate the fact that it could be an important productivity enhancement vehicle to save valuable time. In addition, our business model does not require investing millions of dollars to access aircraft.”
To illustrate the benefits of flying private, Kuruvilla cites the example of the MD of a multi-million dollar company who flew IndiaJets from Bangalore to Chennai.
“From the time he left his house in Bangalore to taking off from HAL airport which is within the city to reaching Mount Road in Chennai it took him around 90 minutes flying IndiaJets,” he says. “Airport gate entry in Bangalore to airport gate exit in Chennai took 60 minutes.
“The last time he flew commercial it took him 45 minutes to reach the Bangalore International airport from his residence and had to waste 60 minutes checking in early – not to mention the long queues at every step and the crowds.”
Huge potential for business jets in India
If you believe that time is money, then flying in this way makes sense for senior executives.
With around 3,500 business jets in the US, 970 in Mexico, 490 in Germany, and 300 in Venezuela, the 149 business jets in India clearly do not match the potential.
“With a shift in consumer mindset, coupled with government efforts for the sector’s growth including investing in private jet terminals – I believe the market is ready for exponential growth,” says Kuruvilla.
“This will further be helped by OEMs then looking at India seriously and investing in authorised service centres and spare parts warehousing.”
Operating private jets is not a simple activity, and there is significant infrastructure required, and buy-in not just from potential flyers but also the Indian government and aircraft manufacturers. If that all happens, Kuruvilla believes the market will accelerate, and fast..
The good news is, it is already happening. In December 2022, Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) opened what it says is the largest private jet terminal in the country – and the fourth in India with a dedicated business jet terminal alongside Delhi, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad.
CIAL promises ‘flight door to car door in two minutes’. It is this kind of marketing that could drive uptake and interest, and more operators will also inevitably bring prices down.
“With a population of 13,300 UHNIs and around 700,000 millionaires – plus India being the fastest growing economy in the world – we believe there is a potential for the number of jets in India to double over the next few years,” says Kuruvilla.
All of the stars seem aligned. India’s business aviation sector is surely ready for takeoff.
IndiaJets – 20 years in the making
John Kuruvilla, CEO and co-founder of IndiaJets, joined startup Air Deccan – India’s first low-cost airline – in 2003. At the time, he described it as a David vs Goliath situation, with Air Deccan taking on Jet Airways, Sahara Airline, and flag-carrier Air India.
“A bunch of mavericks came together and disrupted every aspect of the commercial aviation space in India, to make Air Deccan the second largest airline in India within three years of launch,” he recalls. “From single configuration aircraft, to route planning, pricing, a web-first distribution model, to technology, to marketing – we rewrote the rules of the game.”
Back in 2003, Indian air passenger traffic was just 19 million. By 2023, it was 270 million – making it the fastest-growing aviation market in the world.
As COO of Deccan Charters in 2008, Kuruvilla got his first taste of business aviation and was excited by the demand. But the timing could not have been worse, against the backdrop of the global financial crisis.
“IndiaJets was registered in 2009 but stayed in cold storage,” he says.
Over the next 14 years, Kuruvilla met regularly with his friend Rajesh Rajan – a retired pilot from the Coast Guard, who was head of planning at Air Deccan – and discussed what they could do in the aviation space in India.
After Air Deccan, Rajan built a successful career in the business aviation sector. Then in 2022 “through discussions over long motorcycle rides together and with another common friend, we took the plunge.
“The timing was right, COVID had seen a surge in business aviation, India was the fastest-growing economy, and business leaders in India who understood the value of time over money realised the amount of time they were wasting on commercial flights.”
IndiaJets was officially launched in May 2023.
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