February 2016 | Nithin Rao

'We have changed the way India flies'

It’s been a year since Vistara, the 51:49 airline joint venture between Tata Sons and Singapore Airlines, took to the skies in January 2015. Over the last 12 months, the full-service domestic carrier has introduced innovative services on the ground and in the air, creating a distinct proposition for itself. On a visit to Bombay House, the Tata headquarters in Mumbai, Phee Teik Yeoh, the chief executive officer of Vistara, speaks to Nithin Rao about the future of the airline and about the civil aviation industry in India.

Vistara has completed one year of operations. What have been the major challenges and how did you overcome them?
It has been a very exciting and rewarding journey for the team. We have grown rapidly in a short span of time. Today, we operate 300 (297 to be precise) weekly services across 12 cities in India. Our staff strength has grown to more than 800.

What’s heartening is the high expectations from us to deliver a product that is synonymous with Tata’s legendary hospitality and the service excellence of Singapore Airlines. And we have been able to deliver consistently on our brand promise in the first year of our operations.

We continue to get streams of compliments from fliers who would like to see Vistara succeed. Many of our customers want us to start operations to new destinations. The journey is set to get more thrilling in the future. We want to do a lot more to transform the flying experience in India forever, by delivering our signature personalised and seamless service with intuitive thoughtfulness.

We will continue to approach our business with humility, being aware that there is always room to improve. The goodwill we received prior to our launch continues to grow with our ever-growing family of customers. It’s been quite a rewarding journey so far and we are on the right track.

What has been the response of air travellers to Vistara, especially at a time when Indian passengers are switching to low-cost airlines?
Prior to our entry everybody was just looking at the price. Passengers were content if they were able to arrive at their destinations on time. We changed the perception of air travel forever. Vistara has made travellers aware that they can get personalised service without having to pay a lot more.

In the past, domestic air travel was considered a chore and not many looked forward to it. Nobody enjoyed flying. With Vistara, we have been able to change the perception altogether. Many of our passengers have found travelling on Vistara a refreshing change. They look forward to, for instance, the in-flight meals, to interacting with our crew, who continue to win a lot of accolades for their high levels of service.

The response to our in-flight meals has been interesting. Before we launched our service, we did a consumer survey which revealed that the check-in process and food are the two most common pain points for travellers. So we explored what can be done to address these. We partnered with TajSATS Catering to introduce interesting and novel fare. We took a bold step to inject fusion into the menu – marrying local cuisine with a contemporary global fare. And to our surprise, many travellers were elated and enjoyed the new cuisine.

But we noticed that many business class passengers preferred to have their idlis and masala dosas (South Indian breakfast staples) served in the traditional way. Despite having spent much time and efforts to develop a menu, we decided to start all over again after getting our customers’ response. We have now brought back a lot more Indian influence into the cuisine for our business class passengers, but maintain the more experimental and novel approach to food for our premium economy and economy passengers, who have given a thumbs-up to the menu.

Let me share an anecdote here. One of my colleagues was seated next to a female passenger in the business class on a flight recently. He overheard her talking, probably to her husband who wanted to meet her for dinner on arrival, but she asked him to carry on as she had been looking forward to Vistara’s in-flight meal.

Members of the airline's management team along with the crew at the unveiling of brand Vistara

Vistara has set new benchmarks with its flier-centric initiatives. Could you tell us more?
We were one of the first to introduce the concept of auto check-in. Experience has taught us that more than 95 percent of the passengers who book tickets will turn up for the flight. So instead of subjecting everyone to the check-in process, we introduced the auto-check-in process. If a passenger has not checked within four hours prior to the departure, the person is automatically checked-in as we assume the passenger is among the 95 percent who will turn up.

It is part of our effort to ensure a seamless flying experience. We are also leveraging technology and continue to focus on IT and innovation to drive us closer to our vision to be the world-renowned airline of choice.

We have recently introduced a co-branded credit card with Axis Bank. We intend to introduce another co-brand card with another bank and, this time, with Taj Hotels in a tripartite partnership which will be a very powerful and relevant combination for the well-heeled flier. We have similar partnerships with other Tata companies and there will be many more.

We also offer an innovative, value-based frequent flier programme. Instead of earning points based on the distance travelled, the concept revolves around earning points on what one pays. It is a transparent programme and the passenger gets to see what he or she will get while travelling with Vistara. And as part of the Tata group, we intend to introduce a slew of products and services into our frequent flier programme. Just imagine the day when the points you earn by flying Vistara can get you closer to owning a Jaguar.

Our in-flight entertainment is another pioneering concept in Indian aviation. In partnership with BAE Systems we introduced IntelliCabin™ onboard Vistara. Currently, all business class customers are given Samsung Galaxy tablets preloaded with specially selected audio-video content and by early 2016, all customers across the three cabins will be able to access audio-video content streamed through in-flight wireless technology into their personal electronic devices.

What are your plans for the second year of operations — new destinations, acquisition of new aircraft and expanding market share?
We have established new benchmarks in the industry not just in terms of service excellence, but also in terms of on-time performance (OTP). Our OTP has been consistently the best in the industry. For us, OTP is a given. When passengers travel with Vistara, they place their trust in us to ensure that they reach their destination on time.

Our excellent OTP is because of three ‘Ps’ – processes, planning and people. We have in place a set of robust processes, harnessed from the best practices of Singapore Airlines, which is top-notch in operational excellence. Credit also goes to our people for ensuring our excellent OTP. They have bonded well and are quick in resolving challenges that come their way.

In terms of planning, we anticipate what can go wrong and come out with a set of scenarios. We then put in place not just plan B, but also C. Operations can go wrong any time, but when they do, you ought to bring them back on track quickly.

The three pillars of our success include service excellence, operational excellence and cost leadership. Going forward, we will continue to maintain the high standards of operations and service. We envisage Vistara to be a highly customer-centric organisation where everybody – not just customer-fronting agents, but even back-end staff – will be single-mindedly focused on customers. I foresee an organisation where all employees will have a strong sense of ownership and belonging and treat Vistara as a second home.

We plan to open a special lounge at the departure concourse of Delhi airport. It will be a first-of-its kind airline lounge.

Today, we have nine aircraft. With this, we should be able to operate eight daily flights on the Delhi-Mumbai route, as against the earlier six. By the end of 2018, we will have 20 aircraft in our fleet.

Will you be reviewing the three-class configuration? What has been the demand for premium economy seats?
When we launched operations, business class performance was off to a slow start. However, we have been encouraged by steady improvement over the past few months. 

We recognise we could have got the positioning wrong and are looking at the possibility of reducing the seat count of business class. Change would be a constant in the industry. And we aim to be a constantly learning organisation.

The premium economy section is our differentiator. A lot of critics had wondered why anyone would travel premier economy for a two-hour flight. But over time, passengers realised that by paying a little more they get a whole lot more in terms of product and service offerings.

The convenience of our customers is paramount and towards this end we have partnered with Taj Hotels to offer an unbeatable fly-and-stay package. Many passengers dread the thought of waking up early in the morning for a day trip. However, by flying Vistara and opting for the package, business travellers can take a late evening flight, stay overnight at the Taj properties and squeeze in an additional four to five hours the next day.

Are you hopeful that the government would revisit the 5/20 rule?
The government has not ruled out the removal or amendment of the 5/20 rule – which allows only those airlines which have been in service for five years and have a fleet of 20 aircraft to operate flights to international destinations – so that’s good news. I am optimistic that the government will take a decision that is beneficial for the country as a whole and open up the sector for start-ups wanting to fly overseas. India should be connected to the world to ensure the Make in India vision comes to fruition as quickly as possible.

What is your perspective on the civil aviation sector in India?
The potential for growth is tremendous. I must applaud the government for consulting stakeholders, including airlines, on how to unlock the full potential of Indian aviation. It is gratifying that the views of Vistara are taken and well regarded because of our heritage from our strong parent companies who have the highest ethical standards, great experience and professionalism.

I remain as bullish as I was before Vistara was launched. I think the industry has its challenges like in many other countries.

How has your experience been of working in India? What are the key learnings?
My biggest learning has been that patience is a virtue. I also marvel over the creativity of the workforce. If we are to combine their creativity, passion and the single-minded focus on meeting goals, we can together achieve a lot more in India, especially in Vistara.

How do you manage your work-life balance?
I try to stick to my daily schedule. I relax by cooking and by listening to music. I am yet to master the art of cooking Indian food, which I love. When I cook, I invite my friends over. I squeeze in a game of golf once a week. And when time permits, I go back to Singapore to spend a short weekend with my family. I also do station visits and meet government officials regularly.