UK airline start-up hopes to woo Indian flyers

New Delhi: A British businessman of Indian origin is planning to start a new long-haul budget airline this year with flights from London to Ahmedabad and Amritsar.

Partly crowd-funded, People Over Profit, or Pop, as the airline is called, expects to launch direct flights from London Stansted to India by October 2016 and plough in half its profits into charities.

“We are hoping to start from 1 October to Amritsar and 2 October to Ahmedabad, which is obviously Gandhiji’s birthday so that would be a great day,” Navdip Singh Judge, chairman and principal of Pop, said in a phone interview from London.

Judge’s family comes from Ludhiana from where his parents moved to Africa decades back. He moved to the UK in 1978 and studied aeronautical & astronautical engineering at Southampton University.

The airline is aimed at Gujaratis and Punjabis, who between them make up 1.3 million people in the UK and who would look for direct flights to their home states.

“Hundred per cent of my Punjabi and Gujarati relatives want to fly non-stop to Ahmedabad and Amritsar and zero per cent have ever done it. And 100% of them have told me that if I have a direct flight at the right price then they will fly with me,” he said. “So that’s pretty good family market research.”

The airline plans to price its tickets between Rs.35,000 andRs.50,000 and offer light snacks, tea and water as a complimentary service.

Meals will be charged—authentic vegetarian thalis for Gujaratis and also Punjabi thalis, both for about Rs.1,000.

“But it will be a good hearty, big meal. What I want them to say is: aaaji khaange, changa food hai (yes we must eat, this is a really good dish),” Judge says, slipping into Punjabi.

The airline proposes to use Airbus A330 planes which will be wet leased—in other words, leased with the operating crew—and fly every other day. Pop plans to launch daily flights if the service becomes popular.

The airline has already raised £5 million from high net-worth individuals and hosted a party at the Indian High Commission in London to make its presence felt.

It is now seeking to raise another £5 million through crowd-funding to meet the requirements of British aviation regulator Civil Aviation Authority.

The proposed airline is crowd-funding by selling a £500 ‘gold pass’. The scheme entitles the buyer to one return ticket to India and five years of perks, including extra baggage options, better seats, free meals and priority boarding.

“We need to sell 10,000 of these passes to raise £5 million,” said Judge.

Uniquely, Pop has pledged that nearly 50% of its profits will be given to charities in Britain and India.

New York-based former Jet Airways India Ltd chief executive officer Steve Forte said the project looks improbable.

“He is not raising enough money. A330 is expensive to operate. It looks as another dreamer,” Forte said. “If I were the charities he says he would donate profits (to), I would not hold my breath. This is hot air to generate sympathy. In my book you find ‘sympathy’ in the dictionary, right after ‘ sweat’.”

Harjiv Singh, founder and CEO of Salwan Media Ventures and a member of UK-based charity Loomba Foundation, said the flights could make sense at that price point.

“I think a direct flight from Stansted at that price point is a great idea, given the strong links between the Punjabi and Gujarati diaspora in the UK and India. It will also open up two vibrant regions of India to connect directly to the UK and Europe, as Stansted is a hub for other low-cost connections into the rest of Europe,” he added.

For now, Judge, who has worked with Formula 1 teams and considers Tony Fernandes of AirAsia his hero, says his priority is to raise funds.

Judge has cobbled together a key team in the last four years that has been working on this project. It includes the proposed airline’s chief operations officer and founding partner Graham Howat who has worked at Hong Kong Aircraft Engineering Co., a Cathay Pacific Airways affiliate.

To be sure, the airline business is notorious for bankruptcies. Since 1978, there have been well over 100 airline bankruptcy filings in the US, although not all of these have resulted in liquidation, according to Airlines for America, a lobby group. India has seen Kingfisher Airlines, Paramount Airways, Indus Air and MDLR Airlines close down in the past decade.

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