"Air Asia India has the right priorities, the right partners": Mittu Chandilya

Mittu Chandilya became one of the youngest chief executives in the aviation industry when he was recently appointed CEO of Air Asia India. Although this is first foray into aviation, he sounded confident as he talked to domain-b correspondent Swetha Amit about his passion to revolutionise the industry and bring air travel to the common man.

Mittu ChandilyaYou are in the driver's seat in a venture termed by Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes as ''a match made in heaven''. What prompted you to take up this role?
Tony is somebody I find extremely inspiring and an ultimate optimist.  I don't think he has the word ''no'' in his vocabulary. If you throw something at him he'll figure out a way to do it. That made the entire prospect very interesting. And I've always been interested in the aviation sector since I've been consulting there.

I knew aviation from a purely engineering and strategic perspective, but not from a business standpoint. This was new to me. It's also an industry which I think is primed for somebody to come in and change the game. And I truly believe that, because as a segment it's very static.

There are a lot of fundamental things that nobody has challenged. For example, how you fly, the planes, the routes that you take, the cities that you fly to. This is where I think somebody like Air Asia and Tony's vision comes in; to challenge everything that's been status quo.

Could you tell us a little about your background and experience?
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. I was 19 years old and in university when I started a company of my own. This was an entirely different field. We developed a device which would lock on to your Pepsi / soda fountain and let the manager know when it's going to run out. Later, one of the major bottlers bought it from us.

It was a nice way to start my career and I was able to pay off my university loans, put my sister through university and help my parents buy a house in Canada. And all that was very important to me because in my heart of hearts I am a humble middle class person and it's important to take care of family.

After that I joined an industrial company where we were doing global acquisitions and mergers for them and I was leading that team. Having a little background in finance and strategic marketing, I was quite successful. It was an industry which was mature and there had been no acquisitions for almost like 15 years. And I completed two in my first12 months.

So after that they offered me to come and run a few of their businesses. Then they ultimately sent me to China, after which I moved to Malaysia and then to Singapore.

This was where I actually changed streams and went into a recruitment / consulting firm, where I worked a lot with the board of directors, helped them set their human capital plans and gave them advice on how they should be structuring their organisations. I was there for about four and a half years and then AirAsia happened.

The aviation industry has undergone a lot of turbulence in recent times. Do you think Air Asia India can cope with the challenges in a volatile sector like this?
 Absolutely, I think we are actually built for situations like this. Air Asia has seen through a lot of tough times. They have undergone political crisis, situations like 9 / 11 and SARS. When Tony and his partner started this airline it was two days before 9 / 11 and they faced a very dramatic situation.

And this is where AirAsia replaced their strategy. When you are rock bottom or when there's no room to go this is exactly where the elevated side takes over. And they really built businesses from these kinds of situations. So I think it's perfect timing for Air Asia and perfect timing for me.

There is stiff competition in the low-cost airline business. What makes Air Asia India competitive?
I think you ultimately ought to be true to your vision. My vision is to be able to connect everyone and to give people an opportunity to fly where they never have before. And I truly mean that. This comes back to your middle class roots, about wanting to give back to society.  I believe that if I can give those people who are used to only taking trains or buses an opportunity to fly, this is the true vision.

And that's primarily why we have chosen Chennai as our base; to be able to connect to smaller cities like Trichy and Madurai. If you have that as your true strategy, everything else is built to work around that strategy.

My goal is to get our cost low enough and make sure we bring in the revenues but also ensure that we are giving people the opportunity to fly. I also think this is the perfect marriage between Air Asia, the Tatas and the Bhatias because you have the most supportive people who understand the market and think with a vision. While we are in the business of making profit, if we make it with a purpose of making people's lives better, it's a very powerful thing.

What can travellers expect from the services of Air Asia India?
Firstly and most importantly it's safety and security, which we do not mess around with. Our pilots are among the best, and they go through a very vigorous training process. So we do not cut corners with regards to safety and security.

On top of that we are looking at on-time performance and turn around performance. Beyond that you are going to get excellent services. Hospitality is the core of what we do, so that culture will come across in our airline. Culture is about team work and how do we be the best we can.

Our stewards and stewardesses are extremely customer friendly and will genuinely want to take care of the guests on board. Being an Indian airline, it will have nuances which will be very Indian.

Another factor is our fares. We would be extremely dynamic in our fare pricing. For me low cost does not mean cheap, low cost is how you can cut the cost out and pass the benefit on to customers. That's basically what we are doing and we have structured our costs in the right way.

What are your proposed route plans? Are you focusing on the connectivity between India and South East Asia or within India too?
I think South East Asia and India is natural. That's a part of the reason why we have chosen Chennai too, because AirAsia already flies to Chennai. So it's a good opportunity for us to fly through.

The other network plans is to mostly to connect the south of Asia. Within India it's primarily going to be South of India and then we slowly open out to the rest.

For me it's critical to stay true to our vision and we perfect that by having the right cost structure.  So if I am based out of Chennai, I want to be able to connect to all the smaller cities like Trichy, Madurai, even Thanjavur if the airports are big enough. Tuticorin also is a good opportunity. And then later, places like Cochin.

You are one of the most successful airlines in Kuala Lumpur. How do you see your equity in India a few years down the line?
What I want to do is truly revolutionise aviation. Everything from airports to the way we actually move passengers, transportation and all of that. My vision is to partner up with authorities like the Airports Authority of India and give them opportunities to share some of our best practices.

Our purpose is to positively stimulate the Indian entire economy by bringing in transportation. Moving people is the most dynamic things. It's about improving efficiencies. Say for instance, a person needs to leave at 3 pm in the evening to take an overnight bus from Cochin to Bangalore. Instead, if I can get him to fly at 7 pm he will be there at home by 8 pm and that saves time. So we are talking about opportunities to improve our efficiencies ultimately.

What is your India-related fleet size going to be? When do we see the first flight of Air Asia India taking off?
It's difficult predict an exact time. We still need to get few of our licenses and clearances like the flying permit, our NOC or no-objection certificate.  But it will hopefully be by the end of this year, say sometime around Diwali.

We are looking at a moderate start with regards to our fleet size initially, beginning with three to five planes.  And then ultimately hope to dramatically expand say one plane a month and grow very fast.

What made you choose Chennai as your base?
Since we already fly into Chennai, there's a sense of familiarity with the airports, the people and the terrain. We already have stations in Chennai. So it's natural for us to come and minimise our costs. We have relationships which we can leverage and build up. Being based in South East Asia there's a big population which is from South India and forms a major part of Malaysia and Singapore. So there exists a genuine sense of familiarity.

Not that we don't have that familiarity with North of India. That is definitely there in our plans and we will get there. However the first point of fly through just made sense to make Chennai our headquarter base.

How do you see the Tata role in this venture, considering that the chairman and the chief advisor are S Ramadorai and Ratan Tata respectively?
For me as a young CEO, they are great advisors. I am tremendously lucky to have mentors like them and they are people who are so generous with their time and advice. That's the biggest benefit they bring in. Tata is a huge group which has been amazingly successful in India. So what better partners to have than people who can show us the way India operates and also give us connections across the group from TCS to Taj Hotels. There is an amazing amount of synergies.

It is unconventional to see someone from a non-airline background take on the role of an airline CEO. How do you see yourself dealing with a volatile sector like aviation?
It's very simple. Business is business and you've got to make money. There are huge dynamics which you've got to figure out. You have to drop your costs down and drive up revenues. You have to be true in building your team. You have to get a highly energetic and a dynamic team. I have been successful in doing all of that till now.

Beyond that, aviation is an interesting segment. To learn about the nuances of aviation, I think having the experience is very important. But what I would bring in is fresh perspective. And I surround myself with people who bring in a lot industry experience with them.

Finally, could you tell us more about Mittu Chandilya the person and what your interests are?
I am somebody who is passionate about making a difference. I care about customers and people. I am ambitious, driven, very aggressive and competitive. I am very similar to Tony that way and we are both fighters. Coming from an entrepreneurial background, I will always figure out ways to get stuff done. I am very action-oriented. I do not tolerate lack of performance in my team or any partners associated with me. 

Apart from that I have a big interest in sports. I used to play American football. I love tennis. I used to be a junior pro tennis player. I also work out every day and like reading.

Right now, it's my three sons who take up all my time. They are the real goal for me. Every day when I go back I know what I am working hard for. As I said before, my family is very important to me.