Lawyer with a flight plan

Ashwini Phadnis | Updated on May 05, 2018
Bird count: IndiGo’s fleet has grown from 18 to 97; it ordered 250 Airbus Neo Engine Options aircraft this year. (file photo)

Bird count: IndiGo’s fleet has grown from 18 to 97; it ordered 250 Airbus Neo Engine Options aircraft this year.   -  Reuters

Aditya Ghosh, president of IndiGo

Aditya Ghosh, president of IndiGo

At the controls of the country’s fastest-growing private airline, IndiGo president Aditya Ghosh deploys a winning mix of professional and personal skills

In June this year, when Delhi-based IndiGo decided to go for an initial public offering (IPO), journalists covering the aviation beat became gleeful. The low-cost airline known all along for avoiding the media would now be forced to be in the news in the build-up to the listing. What the journalists got, however, were not insights from the airline owner Rahul Bhatia but its president, Aditya Ghosh.

At stake is an issue of over 1,200 crore shares, which is expected to raise over ₹3,000 crore. IndiGo is still to decide when it will hit the market, but is expected to be sooner than later, as its roadshows are on in India and overseas to attract investor interest. Here again, it is Ghosh who is leading from the front.

As Ghosh finds himself thrust into the limelight, it is in a way a tribute to his professional and personal skills.

As his résumé shows, he has not been to any business school or worked at any airline before (he is, in fact, a lawyer by training); and yet, under him IndiGo was voted one of the best companies to work for in 2015, for the seventh year in a row, and has become the fastest-growing private airline in the country. In 2007, Ghosh was inducted into the airline’s board and became its president the following year, which put him at the head of all operations and management.

Soaring from law courts

The son of an IAS officer, Ghosh did his master’s from Kirori Mal College in Delhi. After six years of law practice, he made a switchover to aviation when InterGlobe, IndiGo’s parent company, began scouting for a General Counsel in 2004. With interests in a range of hospitality- and travel-related services, the group had just decided to launch IndiGo, and many saw Ghosh’s move as suicidal, but that didn’t deter him.

“Aditya quickly understood all the figures that were being bounced around, such as the size of the market, the potential routes, and the latent demand based on spending power and the rising numbers of the middle class. This despite having no previous background in aviation,” recalls a senior official of a rival airline, who had first met Ghosh in 2003 when the two of them worked on a plan for launching a low-cost airline (IndiGo launched in 2006).

However, besides his astute reading of numbers, Ghosh used his sharp analytical skills as a lawyer to gain a strong foothold in the country’s evolving aviation space.

He moved to IndiGo at a time when the domestic airspace was becoming crowded after the then Manmohan Singh government allowed several new entrants — including SpiceJet, GoAir and Kingfisher — to take to the skies. Soon there was a huge churn in the market as the private players decided to experiment in their quest to come up with a winning formula. Hence, while some like Kingfisher transformed from a low-cost airline into a full-service one before realising that the model wasn’t working and finally shutting down, IndiGo stuck to its low-cost model.

Clearly, this strategy has ensured that while the likes of SpiceJet have had a turbulent few years, IndiGo has not only been garnering market share but also steered clear of employee unrest or other negative news.

Cruising altitude

“Aditya’s training as a lawyer allows him to take a dispassionate view of the many issues that plague the Indian aviation industry and express his arguments in an articulate manner,” says Amber Dubey, KPMG’s India head for aerospace and defence. Introduced to Ghosh back in 2009, when they worked together on a project for the ministry of civil aviation, Dubey describes him as a sharp, disciplined person who is completely dedicated to his job and his team.

What endears him to his staff, especially those at the lower level, is the fact that he always responds to every message they send his way, over email or SMS, even WhatsApp. In fact, he also responds to feedback from flyers.

There are those who claim that it is his proximity to not only Rahul Bhatia but also Rakesh Gangwal, the other promoter of IndiGo, that bestows on Ghosh considerable freedom and flexibility in running the airline.

Aside from being a team player and enjoying a closeness to the owners, there is certainly more to Ghosh as a skilled professional. After all, it is under him that IndiGo has reached where it has. The airline’s fleet has grown from 18 to 97 aircraft, and it now offers 633 flights connecting 43 destinations in India and abroad. Its staff strength increased from 1,100 to more than 10,000, and its revenue grew more than 12-fold. The company ordered 250 Airbus Neo Engine Options aircraft in August this year, and it expects to eventually have a fleet strength of 430. Personal accolades are not far behind either — Ghosh made it to Fortune India’s first ‘40 Under 40’ list and has remained on it three years in a row; this year, he has been named one of the Young Global Leaders by the World Economic Forum.

Tellingly, however, Ghosh’s Kodak moment is probably the one from 2011 when he was photographed driving a Wagon R, with his boss Bhatia as co-passenger, on the way to a meeting of airline representatives with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Same difference

Industry watchers say that the key to IndiGo’s success has been the fact that under Ghosh the airline stuck to the low-cost model that was put in place by Bruce Ashby, the company’s first chief executive officer, who passed on the baton to Ghosh.

Says Kapil Kaul, chief executive of Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA), “He (Ghosh) was involved with IndiGo from the very start and critically involved in all major decisions, and this helped in gaining strategic insights. The very strong foundations laid by Bruce Ashby, Indigo’s first CEO, made things easier as well, but Aditya has connected his entire staff base to the organisation’s goals, led from the front, maintained profitability with high standards of service and operational excellence while expanding aggressively.”

Staying true to the model is something that Ghosh had acknowledged in a recent interview to The Hindu Business Line. “The simplicity of the model is what drives its efficiency. I am not saying we are doing rocket science. But in the same market, during the same period, in the same circumstances and same opportunities, you cannot name another airline with one type of aircraft, or another airline which is consistently profitable or… believes in the opportunity in India and orders aircraft,” he said.

Ghosh’s constant refrain that what you hear from IndiGo is plain boring because of the consistency with which the model is executed, is also what gains him respect from the senior management of other airlines who grudgingly admit that they will never say something like that.

Others like Dubey go a step further and say that if Ghosh were ever to hang his boots at IndiGo, or should the Government go ahead and poach him to head Air India or the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and give him a free hand for 10 years, “Indian aviation would change for the better”.

Published on October 02, 2015

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