Were waiting for permission to fly in India

Updated: Jan 31 2008, 07:35am hrs
He is one of the most interesting and fascinating personalities of the corporate world. Richard Branson makes news not only for his businesses spanning 29 countries and 200 branded companies but also for his adventurous personal life. The chief of the Virgin Group has a fetish for breaking world records and is known for doing the unusual. Now, he is planning to launch spaceships, which will take tourists on short flights. Closer to the ground, Branson is gung-ho about the India growth story, a fact substantiated by his frequent visits to the country. On his recent trip, he spoke to FEs Surabhi Agarwal about his plans for the country. After foraying into the entertainment sector, Branson is now keen to get a slice of the Indian aviation business. On cards is the launch of a domestic airline named Virgin India. Known for doing things in style, Virgin India aims to be the best in business, taking on established players like Jet Airways and Kingfisher in the country. Excerpts from the interview:

What are Virgin groups plans for the Indian market

We are very pleased with the way Virgin Atlantic is going and flying from Delhi and Mumbai to London. We are flying more and more people between India and England. We think there are improvements that can be made and we are lobbying with the governments to make it easier for people to travel between the two countries. At the moment it takes six weeks to get a visa to travel to India. So, we are lobbying with the Indian government to ease the process. There is a need for making improvements at airports. Delhi Airport is one of the worst in the world and Heathrow too needs a lot more investment and so on and so forth. We are working hard on issues like these.

Moreover, we are trying to launch a domestic airline in India. We are trying to get both countries to deregulate all the rules so that anybody in India can set up business in Europe and anyone from Europe can set up shop in India, and that will be in the interest of the consumer.

There has been a lot of talk about Virgin Atlantic shifting to biofuels. What is happening on that front

We are trying to run our companies in a manner that doesnt harm the environment. Next month we are flying one of our airplanes on clean fuel. We are trying to be the leaders in bringing clean fuel to the aviation industry. We are trying to bring clean fuel to cars as well. One area we are interested in India is to persuade people to switch from dirty fuels to sugar based ethanol, which is very clean. And India has a lot of sugar. As sugar prices are at an all-time low, so it will be good for the sugar industry. It would also bring the price of petrol down in India.

What is the progress of your domestic airline project Are you looking at striking any partnerships

The first thing we have to do is to get the Indian government to give us the permission to start a domestic airline in India. After we get the permission, we will be very happy to get Indian partners into the airline. We would love to see Virgin India up and running over the next year. But we are waiting to see whether the ministry will give us the permission to fly.

Is the 2009-dateline practically viable for the launch

It will be up and running only, if we have the permission to fly. Its up to the Indian government to decide whether they want to encourage competition in the aviation industry or not.

India has seen the launch of several low-cost carriers in the last few years. What will be your strategy

It will be a really good quality airline. We launched one in America called Virgin America. It is the best airline flying in the country. It has got seat-back videos, massage seats, fantastic entertainment system, comfortable seats, etc. We want to do the same in India.

Many Indian carriers have registered huge losses. How lucrative does the Indian aviation industry seem to you

A good quality domestic airline can still do very well. Some airlines in India are losing money while others are making money. Our prior record in making money in the airline industry is quite good. We think we can make money even after launching a really good quality airline in India. Obviously, some consolidation of current airlines is going on in India and I think the Indian airline industry will be quite profitable one day.

How much do you intend to invest in this airline project

We will be investing about three quarters of a billion dollar ($667 million) over the first two years.

In the past few years we saw Virgin investing in India through radio (Fever 104) and comics (Virgin Comics) How are these businesses faring Do you plan to foray into any more sectors in India

The radio is going very well here. The comics are also going well. And I am coming back here in a months time to make another announcement about another industry we are planning to set up. I cant say much at this time, but it is a big industry and it needs more price competition and better quality. And you would find more about it in a months time.

Where does India figure in the Virgin groups scheme of things

India will get more and more important as we go on. It is very important for Virgin and it will become a bigger and bigger share of Virgins turnover. But I think I cant mention any specific ventures at the moment. We are looking at things like health clubs and telephony. We are also looking at banking. There are a number of areas that interest us.

By when can we expect these projects to get launched

One of those is coming quite close, as you will see in a months time.