India’s economic boom has taken flight. Air traffic volumes are increasing exponentially – as is the pressure to service five million new passengers a year. That’s why KS Kohli and his Frankfinn training schools are making a fortune training young men and women how to serve lunch at 33,000ft. But, warn analysts, the Indian airline industry could be heading for a nasty nosedive.
On board an Airbus A300B, a beautiful woman is striding the aisles, putting questions to the crowded cabin. “Why I am closing tray tables? What do you do if there’s a loud noise after take-off?”
“Madam,” says a voice, “You shout, ‘Brace, brace!’ If they don’t understand it, you tell them to put their heads down and grab their ankles.”
Madam nods with satisfaction, and moves on to discussing soup. Sheetal Chauhan is used to captive audiences, having worked as senior cabin crew for 10 years, but these passengers are different. They’re not actually flying – and they’re not actually passengers. In every seat is a student of the Frankfinn Institute of Air Hostess Training; this plane has been turned into a stationary classroom, parked in a yard near Delhi’s airport. Everyone on board is here because they want to be part of the most booming part of India’s vibrant economy. They want to be air hostesses; even those in trousers.
“Even the boys say ‘air hostess’,” says Frankfinn’s chairman, KS Kohli, sitting in his slick Mumbai headquarters behind an ostentatiously large and empty desk – at odds with the teeming bustle of the railway station outside. A handsome Sikh, Kohli was a successful criminal lawyer before he founded Frankfinn in 1993.
“I wanted to go into business and wanted it to be in glamour. The hospitality industry had the most potential.” He branded his business Frankfinn after the pen name he used to write poetry. Today, his company leads the pack of India’s training institutes. Its 65-strong network of offices offers a BTEC qualification in Aviation, Hospitality and Travel Management, in conjunction with Edexcel, the UK’s largest awarding body. Aimed at 17- to 24-year-olds, the BTEC is supposed to groom them to be better job applicants. Think of it as a finishing school for would-be flight attendants.
Kohli’s speech about his Frankfinn achievements is long and practised: it is the only institute to hire a Bollywood actress (albeit B-lister Soha Ali Khan) to act as its “brand ambassador”. The only one to offer students an accredited BBC English qualification, as well as training in air ticketing software Fidelio. The only one to offer “100 per cent job assistance” – alerting students to interviews – for 18 months after the course has ended.
The talk is expansive because competition is tough and because, in boom-time India, the rewards are considerable. The country’s GDP is growing at an impressive 8 per cent a year, but aviation figures are even more mesmerising. In 1994 the Air Corporations Act was repealed, breaking the monopoly of India’s two state-owned airlines and freeing up the skies to competition. Before that, only Air India (for overseas routes) and Indian Airlines (domestic) could sell scheduled tickets. Now 10 private airlines operate, from low-cost carriers such as SpiceJet, Air Deccan and IndiGo, to full-service outfits like Jet Airways, with four international routes, and Kingfisher, owned by “India’s Richard Branson” Vijay Mallya, boss of United Breweries. Most were launched in the past four years.
In 2003 there were 15 million Indian air passengers. Now there are 25 million, with five million more added each year. The Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), a Sydney-based aviation consultancy, predicts that 70 per cent of India’s aviation market will consist of low-cost carriers by 2010, making it the biggest budget market in the world. By the same year, the number of Indians taking to the skies will reach 50 million. When SpiceJet surveyed its passengers it found 40 per cent had never flown before.
In this respect, Frankfinn’s students are typical. Most on the Airbus have never set foot on a plane before. Nearly all have been lured by ads that portray a career dripping with a cachet it has long since lost in the West. “I’ve seen air hostesses on TV,” says 20-year-old Asher Sharma from Faridabad, near Delhi. “It looks so glamorous and challenging.”
This may surprise Westerners used to thinking of cabin crew as flying waitresses, but behind the breathlessness is genuine excitement. Before the era of banking online and low-cost carriers, the limit of most of these trainees’ ambitions would have been early marriage, with air travel as remote an ambition as Bollywood stardom. Not any more. “I want my own identity,” says Anupama Bhardwaj, 19, also from Faridabad. “If you do this job, everyone remembers your name. And besides, there’s the salary.”
The average starting salary, even on no-frills airlines, is 30,000 rupees (€500) a month. “It’s a princely sum for these kids,” says Mehul Srivastava, aviation correspondent at Mint, India’s new business paper. These kids in particular: “Young women in big cities like Mumbai don’t want to be air hostesses, they want to go into software. But it’s an aspiration for those from what we call ‘tier two’ cities – Lucknow, Faridabad. It’s seen as a career that can free them from small-city life.” Even if that freedom is just another route to marriage, as Kohli points out: “Lots of them have never had a cup of tea in a five-star hotel because it costs 300 rupees [€5]. Now they’re rubbing shoulders with Mr Right.”
The lure of the air also works on young men: 40 per cent of Frankfinn students are male, though most will end up in hotels, not airlines. Most passengers on Indian planes are middle-class businessmen, who want female air hostesses. “We do select fewer boys,” admits Kohli. He knows where his loyalties lie: “I don’t believe the customer is king. I think the customer is God.”
Such messianic language is usual for a man described in his company literature as the “Visionary Chairman”. But Frankfinn’s beginnings were much humbler. It took Kohli four years to launch his first course, a week-long qualification in personality development. “People laughed at me, but I surveyed the market: airlines want confidence, grooming. I realised we had to transform the nation’s youth.” In 2003, the course became a year-long diploma, and in 2006 a BTEC.
Though the fee of 100,600 rupees (€1,743) is four times the average yearly income, Kohli plans to open 20 more centres in India this year, plus overseas offices in Nepal, Dubai and Bangladesh.
There is demand to be filled: India is desperately short of skilled airline staff. In 2005 Air Sahara grounded 10 planes because its pilots had been poached by other airlines. Two thousand new pilots will be required this year alone.
Cabin crew are also in short supply, but easier to solve, with a pool of young English-speakers to draw on. Airlines are divided over the institutes, with some complaining their instruction does not match industry standards. Kohli, meanwhile, sees his work as a public service. “We are improving the attitudes of the nation’s youth, so we are serving the nation. I’m making good human beings.”
Kohli is also making money – a turnover of 1bn rupees (€17.2m) last year, according to his office. Armed with this liquidity, he is diversifying. He launched India’s only aviation monthly, Aviation Times, despite no magazine experience. In December, he created the Frankfinn record label, which has released four popular CDs. Kohli appears on all their covers and has taken cameo roles in the videos. He intends to make a Bollywood film this year.
In 2009 Kohli plans to launch Air Frankfinn, yet another low-cost airline. Even with Kohli’s self-confidence, this is a daunting prospect. Despite soaring passenger figures, more Indians still travel by rail in a day than by planes in a year. High fuel charges, congested skies and ticket prices mean that not one private airline will post an operating profit this year, and combined losses are expected to be €380m.
In Mumbai and Delhi, which get 50 per cent of India’s air traffic, planes are regularly kept waiting 30 minutes or more to land, a delay that cost €61m in fuel losses last year according to Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, CEO of Jet Airways. Civil aviation minister Praful Patel recently put a cap on flights to Delhi and Mumbai, and Bangalore won’t take any new flights for six months.
“It’s a fool’s paradise to think all train passengers will convert to air travel,” says SpiceJet’s Ajay Jasra. “We don’t have the infrastructure to take even 1 per cent of Indian Railways’ passengers.” The current situation won’t last, says David Bentley of CAPA, pointing to China as an example. “In the early 1990s there were more than 35 new airlines. It went down to three, then up to 10 and will probably come down again.
There’ll be a similar shake-up in India.” Though India’s airlines have orders for 480 new planes (which will more than double its current fleet), CAPA predicts it will end up with “three or four national low-cost carriers with more than 70 aircraft each, two or three full-service carriers and three or four small regional operators.”
This doesn’t concern Kohli. “I want to take Frankfinn to such a height,” he says with a smile. Nor will it concern the millions of hopefuls waiting their turn to join him on the ascent. “I know in Europe,” says Kohli, “being an air hostess is not a prestigious job. But here, if you say to a girl, ‘I will hang you upside down for life and you can be cabin crew,’ she will say, ‘hang me’.”
Vijay Mallya is chairman of the giant United Breweries empire and the man who put Kingfisher beer in curry houses world-wide. His latest venture is to “fly the good times” – the slogan of Kingfisher Airlines.
Mallya launched his outfit in 2005 with a new Airbus A320, predicting he would turn a profit in its first year, and ordering $3bn (€2.28) of new planes at the Paris Air Show the following month. Kingfisher now operates 146 flights a day between 24 Indian cities, and is a dizzying success.
This is probably down to Mallya’s bullish business behaviour and the high-profile contacts he gained as an elected representative in India’s upper house. Kingfisher signed an astonishing deal with its competitor Indian Airlines, where the state-owned mammoth agreed to supply ground-handling and maintenance.
Mallya is unbowed by criticism of his refusal to hire male cabin crew, and insistence on calling his air hostesses “flying models” and his fleet “funliners”. All publicity is good publicity in a country where alcohol advertising is banned. The emphasis on glamour also serves him well with his market: other airlines try to entice the common man, but Mallya wants passengers carrying a briefcase.
He is promising routes to the UK and US, hoping to compete with Jet Airways, and Air Sahara which already fly abroad, but this may be a way off. Until then, the good times may not fly quite as far, or as profitably, as Mallya might like.