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India: A Global Flight Plan

At 4:45 p.m. on May 23, a new Airbus A340 touched down at London's Heathrow airport. Greeting the passengers with garlands of flowers was Naresh Goyal, a slight man sporting a wide smile. Goyal had plenty to grin about. It was the first long-haul flight for his Jet Airways. And not only was it on schedule, but passengers were happy -- on the nine-hour journey, they had been treated to Jet Airways' trademarked white-glove service.

Jet Chairman Goyal's three-decade-long dream -- an international airline that "would be profitable, and among the top five globally in terms of reliability and service" -- could come true. Jet is in the black, earning $90 million on $1 billion in revenues for the year ended in March. And it has won nearly three dozen awards for excellence. Going global will take a while yet. Having secured the right to fly to London, Goyal is aiming for service to Brussels and New York.

Jet's flight may look smooth these days, but the airline has encountered plenty of turbulence since its founding 12 years ago. New Delhi has worked hard to protect India's state-owned carriers, and in 1997 it decreed that no foreign airline could invest in the aviation sector. That forced Goyal to buy out a 40% stake held jointly by Gulf Air and Kuwait Airways and find new local partners overnight. But he didn't let it get him down. "You can never feel defeated," he says.

The key to Jet's success? Goyal hired quality pilots and managers, poaching from Singapore Airlines, KLM, Lufthansa (DLAKY), and British Airways. A government rule barring private players from charging lower fares than the state-run airlines didn't hurt, either. Jet distinguished itself with top-notch service, tasty hot meals for all fare classes, and on-time arrivals. Business travelers and tourists defected en masse to Jet, and the company today has 46% of India's domestic market. Now Goyal's challenge is to make that formula work as India deregulates and Jet goes global.

By Manjeet Kripalani

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