If Jet Airways chairman Naresh Goyal can't stop Kingfisher Airlines from going overseas, he can certainly take a huge lead and stamp his footprint in a manner that even the highly ambitious and competitive chairman of Kingfisher Airlines, Vijay Mallya, may find hard to emulate.
It is on this premise that Jet has - ever since Kingfisher's going overseas became a distinct possibility - expanded its international operations with amazing focus. "We have been adding international routes and frequencies at a break-neck speed," says Jet CEO Wolfgang Prock-Schauer, who says that Jet's strategy is independent of its rivals.
Even if Kingfisher Airlines launches by August 2008, it may find the distance between itself and Jet quite hard to cover. The first-mover advantage and the enormous spread that Jet will enjoy will make Goyal's shoes hard to step into.
Moreover, though some say that Jet's domestic in-flight standards have dropped, there are very few who don't have great things to say about the carrier's international offerings.
Incidentally, Prock-Schauer - who, in trying to keep up with the scorching pace, is finding little time to do anything else - recently found himself dragged into the dirty battle between the two carriers, with Kingfisher Airline officials claiming they were luring him away from Jet and getting him on board (even for this story, he refused to be dragged into any comparisons between the two rivals, saying that he would only comment on his airline).
Sources say that he had to face the ire of his chairman - who even went so far as to say that there were ten CEOs who would replace Prock-Schauer if he abandoned the Jet ship - and eventually chose to stay put.
But that may be a harder decision than he realised. As the weeks have gone by, there seems to be no let-up in Jet's overseas obsession. Take a closer look at what Goyal has done in the last few months (managed by Prock-Schauer primarily) - ever since his first aircraft left for American shores The airline has been adding new destinations and then frequencies like it's going out of fashion. The total number of international departures have shot up to 3,198 in October-December 2007 from 1,731 in October-December 2006, a rise of 85 per cent.
Almost all the new offerings have come with aggressive introductory fares. In addition, it is offering its frequent fliers a "fly international free" scheme, if they fly a certain number of domestic flights during a specified period. In a matter of a few months, flights to 57 destinations span the length and breadth of India and beyond, including New York (both JFK and Newark), Toronto, Brussels, London (Heathrow), Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Bangkok, Kathmandu, Dhaka, Muscat, Doha, Kuwait and Bahrain.
The airline plans to extend its international operations to other cities in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia in phases with the introduction of additional wide-body aircraft into its fleet.
Recently, Jet has bagged rights to fly out of Shanghai, so in addition to Brussels, it will develop that as a new hub. Prock-Schauer and many industry analysts see this as a coup; not only will the airline develop a new route, it will fly to the US through Shanghai, saving on flight time. Permissions, he says, are taking time to come through, but the approval is on course.
With respect to expansion areas, Jet plans to focus on North America, the UK, specific points in Continental Europe, Gulf (rights to fly to Abu Dhabi and Dubai, both lucrative sectors, are expected soon), ASEAN, China including Hong Kong, and South Africa.
"At a later point of time, the market to Australia and certain markets in north Asia are of interest," says Prock-Schauer. In addition to this, Jetlite, the airline's cheaper option, has applied for rights to fly to the Gulf and Thailand, approvals for which are expected soon.
Along with expanding destinations at a frenetic pace, Jet Airways is tying up various code shares with different carriers - a critical part of the strategy, say Jet officials - around the globe to offer seamless connectivity with more destinations
It has recently tied up code share agreements with Qantas and Brussels Airlines. Early February, the carrier entered into a code share with American Airlines. To complement its daily flights to New York (Newark and JFK) from Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai, Jet Airways markets and applies its code (9W) on American Airlines/American Eagle-operated flights between New York's John F Kennedy Airport (JFK) and Baltimore, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas (Fort Worth), Raleigh-Durham and Washington (Reagan).
Similarly, American Airlines now markets and applies its code (AA) on Jet Airways-operated flights between New Delhi and Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai.
From February 28, the airline started a code share with Air Canada so that passengers can fly between Mumbai and London Heathrow on Jet Airways-operated flights continuing to/from Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Montreal and Edmonton on flights operated by Air Canada.
In September 2007, the airline was in advanced stage of planning for its international operations. In fact, a team went to Belgium to finalise the crockery and cutlery to be used on flights. The airline applied for slots, counters and other necessary infrastructure at the San Francisco airport.
But despite heavy lobbying with the government, Mallya couldn't secure permission to fly overseas in time for the arrival of his A 330-400s (the first of which should be here this April).
His merger with Deccan, according to sources, is the new key to flying international (Deccan will be eligible to fly this August, as per government rules), but it's not clear how he will use Deccan's rights while maintaining both brands and using different aircraft.
Says a senior Kingfisher airline official, "Certainly, our plans have been thrown out of gear but when one is launching international, a few months here and there won't matter in the long run." He argues that Jet is yet another player Kingfisher will compete with, just as it will with Air India, British Airways, Emirates, Singapore Airlines and all the other international carriers.
But not everyone agrees. A top ministry official who has been privy to the subtle and not-so-subtle battles between the two carriers says he thinks that Jet has stolen a huge march by getting permission to fly through Shanghai, thereby reducing the time taken to fly and opening up a new untapped route.
He says he's impressed by Goyal's style of taking things head-on. "If he wanted Shanghai, he landed up there and stayed put till he got it. If he wants anything, he pursues it himself and doesn't leave things to his lieutenants."
In contrast, Mallya, who is rarely in the country, not only has to leave crucial things to his executives, but is also distracted with the sheer number of things he's taken on in the last year.
"Goyal has just one business; for Mallya the airline is one of many. I think the difference will eventually show," he adds.