Saturday, November 14, 2020

The man who made flying affordable to millions of Indians

In the summer of 2005, retired army officer-turned-businessman GR Gopinath announced that he would enable Indians to fly at one rupee or less than a cent.

It was an incredulous sales pitch from the founder of the country's first budget airline.

Air Deccan, his then two-year-old no-frills airline modelled on European budget carriers like EasyJet and Ryanair, had already made flying affordable to millions of Indians. Capt Gopinath's tickets cost half of what competitors charged.

Now his airline introduced "dynamic pricing" where a small number of "early bird" customers could travel at a rupee. Latecomers would pay a higher ticket price, which would still be substantially lower than competitors. Not surprisingly, booking counters were overrun with customers, many of them first-time fliers. Critics howled such pricing methods would wreck the industry.

"The one rupee ticket fired the imagination of the people and quickly became a buzzword," wrote Capt Gopinath in his memoir. He believed his airline had not "only broken the price barrier, but India's caste and class barrier to flying".

A new Tamil film Soorarai Pottru (Praise the Brave), released on Amazon Prime Video this week, celebrates the life of the maverick businessman. Based on Capt Gopinath's memoir, the film is produced by Academy Award winner Guneet Monga.

"It's an incredible story about bridging the gap between the have and have-nots. Most Indians were excited when the concept of low-cost flying was introduced by Capt Gopinath," Ms Monga told the BBC. Tamil film star Suriya, who plays the businessman, says, "He revolutionised flying in India by breaking class and economic barriers".

Soorarai Pottru has all the popular tropes of commercial Tamil cinema: song and dance, a focus on breaking caste and class taboos, and much action and melodrama.

But the film also tells the story of how Capt Gopinath found 500 idle airports and airstrips in India to help expand regional connectivity. It shows how his wife, Bhargavi, chipped in with her money from her small baking business to help him when he was scrambling for funds; and how his friends from the army were his greatest supporters in fulfilling his dream.

"The film is about what Capt Gopinath stood for - equal access and inclusiveness. He often bit more than he could chew, failed in his ventures, went bust, but his never-say-die spirit is infectious", says Suriya.

14/11/20 Sudha G Tilak/

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