Feb. 28 issue - The same day that "The Aviator" opened in theaters across India, homegrown flying entrepreneur Naresh Goyal debuted Jet Airways, India's first private air carrier, to rave reviews on the Bombay Exchange. In one of the first high-profile signs that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's moves to deregulate India's aviation industry are beginning to excite investors, the initial public offering of 1.7 million shares sold out within minutes last Friday, raising at least $375 million.
The successful IPO comes as Brand India is taking off. In the first 17 days of February alone, foreign fund managers invested $1.5 billion, and market watchers expect the 2005 total to reach $12 billion, up from $8.4 billion last year and $6.7 billion in 2003. Now, with three billion-dollar IPOs last year and nearly 10 companies with market values in excess of $10 billion, the gloom that once shrouded the Indian market has turned into euphoria, inspired by Singh's reforms. Late last year, for example, his administration succeeded in raising the cap on foreign investment in the aviation sector to 49 percent from 40 percent, and allowed domestic carriers to begin flying abroad. No airline is better positioned than Jet to exploit these opportunities.
When India began opening the skies to competition 12 years ago, Jet became the nation's first private carrier. It is now the leading domestic airline, with a market share of 43 percent. Consumers regularly vote it first in India for service—one reason analysts say it should profit handsomely from an expected boom in air travel inside India, and be able to compete on international routes as well. Many investors see Jet as a way to invest in the growing spending power of India's middle class.
The risk: Jet is losing its first-mover advantage. It faces new private competition from Air Sahara and India's first low-cost carrier, Air Deccan. As many as five more discount carriers plan to open for business in 2005. They face hurdles to applying the discount model in India, where there are no airport slots left in or near big cities like Delhi and Mumbai, and costs for landing fees and jet fuel are extremely high. Still, a fare-price war may be coming. Jet says it's not worried, because it gets 80 percent of its revenue from business travelers who don't pinch pennies. And whether it helps Jet or not, the sight of thriving competition is sure to attract more foreigners to Brand India.