Bird Group ventures into aviation academy, hotels

By Vishnu Makhijani, IANS

New Delhi : The diversified Rs.2.5 billion ($60 million) Bird Group that has a pan-Indian presence in the country’s aviation space, is spreading its wings by opening a pilot’s training school and beginning construction of three of its planned eight five-star hotels.

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“Over the next two years, if we can find the right business model, we could even start a regional airline,” Bird Group executive director Ankur Bhatia told IANS.

The aviation academy at Punjab’s industrial capital of Ludhiana will be only the second such in north India after the state-run Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Udan Akademy at Fursatgunj in Uttar Pradesh – and the first in the private sector in the region.

Set to open later this year, the Bird academy will train some 100 pilots annually through 10-month courses.

“It will be a state-of-the art facility with modern Cessna aircraft, and a range of simulators,” Bhatia said.

“India’s aviation sector is booming and there are not enough pilots to meet the growing the demand. We hope to plug the gap somewhat,” he added.

The academy will also run courses on aircraft maintenance, as also train cabin crew.

The Bird Group has a presence in India’s travel, aviation services, hospitality and IT sectors. It has more than 4,500 employees and 45 fully automated offices across the country.

The group is set to begin constructing the first of its five-star hotels at Delhi, Goa and Rishikesh, with the chain eventually spreading to Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Jaipur and Amritsar.

“What will differentiate our hotels from all others is that each of them will boast of an extensive spa where guests can avail a wide range of non-clinical treatments to rejuvenate and pamper themselves in well designed private therapy suites,” Bhatia pointed out.

The properties will be run as a 50:50 joint venture with Dusit Hotels and Resorts, one of Thailand’s oldest and largest hospitality groups.

All three hotels are likely to be functional by 2010 and the remaining by 2013, Bhatia said.

By 2009, the group will have taken a decision on whether or not to float a regional airline, with the sector recently being opened up to regional players.

“Infrastructure is critical and once it becomes clear what exactly is available and where, once we have found the right aircraft and the right business model, then we will go in,” Bhatia maintained.

Contending that the present fare structures of India’s domestic carriers “can’t even meet fuel costs”, he added: “If we float a regional airline it will not be just for the heck of it but because we are serious about it.”

Two years ago, the Bird group pioneered an indigenous IT solution that enables budget airlines link up to the global Amadeus reservation system and helps in inventory control.

AIRS (Airline Inventory and Reservation System) “has made Amadeus accessible to low-cost carriers. It gives them the means to distribute on an international platform,” Bhatia said of the system that took two years to develop and has been operational since 2005.

“AIRS assists airlines in inventory control, reservations and ticketing at extremely economical rates,” Bhatia pointed out.

Amadeus is a global reservation system that links airlines around the world. It normally caters to larger international carriers.

Nine airlines – Paramount, Jagson, AirOne Royal Bengal Airline and MDLR, besides Bhutan’s Druk Air, Nepal’s Indus and Air Nepal, and Sri Lanka’s Mihin Lanka – use the AIRS system to log on to the Amadeus network.

The Bird Group had humble beginnings in 1968 when Bhatia’s father was appointed a general sales agent (GSA) for Lufthansa. Bhatia joined the business in 1993 after obtaining a degree in software development from King’s College, London.

Today, the group is actively involved in promoting diversified facilities such as specialized services in the areas of loyalty programmes, call centre services, data maintenance, online transaction support services, provision of ground handling services, passenger handling, aviation security, marketing and support of software applications, automation of civil airports, and comprehensive solutions in the field of satellite communications.