Jet Airways founder Naresh Goyal bids adieu to his dream, but outshines aviation's tribe of loud wannabes

Naresh Goyal, a humble travel agent-turned-tycoon, managed to elbow out some big names in the 1990s, when dreams took wings for many an entrepreneur.

Madhavan Narayanan March 26, 2019 10:37:15 IST
Jet Airways founder Naresh Goyal bids adieu to his dream, but outshines aviation's tribe of loud wannabes
  • Naresh Goyal must now feel like a pilot pushed out from the commanding heights of a cockpit and reduced to the status of a passenger

  • Goyal's success is undeniable despite the airline's difficulties because he went for a premium offering

  • Jet Airways survives as a functioning entity despite talk of an exodus of pilots and restlessness in its ranks

"Cabin crew to stations for landing."

If a long-career as the founder of a pioneering airline is like a Jet Airways flight, Naresh Goyal must now feel like a pilot pushed out from the commanding heights of a cockpit and reduced to the status of a passenger fastening his seat belt as the plane loses height. Lenders have hijacked the airline he launched in 1992, much like armed men elbowing their way into the cockpit, as 69-year-old Goyal and his wife Anita  resigned from its board. The voice of the lenders may well be ringing in Goyal's ears like the landing announcement of a pilot in a flight due for touchdown.

Plans by the 51 percent equity stake owner to install his son Vihaan in his place—the dream of many an Indian tycoon—seem to have been grounded with Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways throwing up its hands in what might have been a white knight rescue act involving a fresh dose of investment.

The State Bank of India is in control of the 26-year-old airline for now. Goyal's exit holds lessons for India's 'promoter' capitalists: You can't have it all: talking too big, growing too much, taking banks for granted and then trying to install your offspring.

The feisty entrepreneur may take heart from the fact that aviation, which has burnt the hands of many a wannabe, has got him cornered but only after he successfully founded India's first full-service private airline and thus far the longest running one. His hands-on passion to build a service-driven airline is stuff of corporate folklore.

Goyal's success is undeniable despite the airline's difficulties because in a market famous for budget-this and no-frills that, he went for a premium offering, albeit with an unimaginative name. 'Jet' is not what a discerning brand-maker would want to call the preferred airline, but there was plenty in the flights that reeked of an India getting out of the clutches of Nehruvian socialism when it took off in the 1990s.

Jet Airways founder Naresh Goyal bids adieu to his dream but outshines aviations tribe of loud wannabes

File image of Naresh Goyal. Reuters.

The yellow-jacketed, carefully-groomed air hostesses gracefully wheeling their trolleys in India's rickety airports of those times is stuff of nostalgia. The food and the snobbish air that went with the brand completed India's post-reform feeling. ModiLuft and SpiceJet in its old avatar tried hard but did not quite catch up with Jet. One is gone and the other has reinvented itself in a humble way. Air Vistara, a latecomer backed by the Tatas, has only just begun.

Goyal, a humble travel agent-turned-tycoon whose controlling ownership of the airline has remained a matter of controversy, managed to elbow out some big names in the 1990s, when dreams took wings for many an entrepreneur. His capacity to woo overseas investments, lobby with policy-makers and keep passengers in mind certainly helped.

All that was before no-frills became a fashion and a byword for viability in a one-billion-strong country where the pride for owning an airline fell flat at the altar of high capital costs courting a market in which the lowest price was the way to sustainability. Even that required chutzpah.

In 2003, Captain G R Gopinath started Air Deccan, India's pioneering budget airline, but later folded his dream into the now-defunct Kingfisher Airlines founded by fugitive Vijay Mallya around the same time. Mallya somehow thought he could pull out a rabbit from a hat when he tried to combine the pricing of a budget airline with a personal touch to service resembling a rich man's yacht. Before that, Air Sahara offered goodies at throwaway prices through in-flight auctions. All these men failed, some miserably. Two of them landed in jail for varying reasons. Their tragic flaw: Thinking big with borrowed money, and trying their luck literally in thin air.

Goyal may take heart from the fact that he outflew them all, surpassed only by IndiGo's Rahul Bhatia, who managed to make the B word cool as he achieved the no-frills dream Gopinath was meant to. Somewhere along the way, Goyal even managed to acquire Subrata Roy's Air Sahara within Jet's wings in what might be a definite status statement in a land where tycoons rarely sell out ventures that spell pride.

Debt has done many an airline apart, but Jet Airways survives as a functioning entity despite talk of an exodus of pilots and restlessness in its ranks. Chances are that its reputation survives despite its founder's exit. In the relative scheme of airline dreams, that is an achievement Naresh Goyal can be justly proud of.

There are some who say he can never be written off. Those gleaming eyes located above an uncertain moustache always held some stories waiting to be told. The least he owes India is a colourful autobiography on pioneering a lasting premium airline in a land where discounts are the way to go.

(The writer is a senior journalist and commentator. He tweets as @madversity)

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