A career in aviation was supposed to be Sanjiv Kapoor’s one-way ticket away from the turbulence of India in the 1970s. Little did he know that his great gig in the sky would lead him back to where the idea came to be.
Growing up in 1970s Calcutta where power outages lasted 12 hours a day, Sanjiv Kapoor would look forward to visits from his uncle who worked for Pan American World Airways in Munich. He, with his German wife and their children in tow, would bring exotic gifts and tales of travels to Tehran, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Honolulu. Their stories, along with Kapoor’s love for the genre-defying music of Pink Floyd and the Airfix model airplane kits his father brought back from business trips to England, offered him a sense of escape and convinced him that a career in aviation was the ticket to a life of adventure.
LEARNING TO FLY
Kapoor, now chief strategy and commercial officer of Vistara, was brought up in a well-to-do progressive household and went to one of the most prestigious private schools in Calcutta (now Kolkata), La Martinière. As Kapoor recalls, the school embodied India – its students representing all the ethnic groups and religions that had sizable populations in the city at the time, including Indian, Anglo-Indian, Indian-Chinese, even Armenian. The education emphasized sports and games, as well as open debate, and was liberal in its views and approach, actively encouraging social interaction between the sexes despite running separate boys’ and girls’ schools.
It was here that Kapoor met his wife, whom he started dating in Grade 11. The two were also president and vice-president, respectively, of the Interact Club, an association whose mission is to tackle the social causes present in today’s society. “Leaders were taught to be assertive and articulate, to question the status quo, and to make a difference,” Kapoor says. “Some may have considered us (uncharitably) to be westernized, alienated, urban elites, but … it gave us very broad-minded global outlooks.”
This passion for civic duty followed Kapoor, even after he graduated from Dartmouth College and held roles at airlines such as Northwest, GMG and Vistara competitor SpiceJet, with stints at Temasek Holdings, Bain & Company and others in between. These jobs took Kapoor to the Bay Area, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Singapore, Moscow, London, Dhaka and more.
Compelled to encourage Indians to participate in reducing India’s trash output, Kapoor founded the non-governmental organization A Garbage Free India in 2010. “It really saddens me that despite our magnificent history and culture, despite the tremendous advancements and contributions we as Indians have made since Independence in 1947, at the street level we are one of the least civic-conscious countries in the world, where so many educated people seem to not think twice about throwing their litter on the streets, about treating the outdoors as a giant garbage bin,” he says.
IT’S WHAT WE DO
Responsible for overseeing the airline’s operations, Kapoor’s day-to-day tasks include analyzing how to make the most of the rebranded Freedom Fares through promotions and deciding on products including in-flight entertainment and connectivity for the airline’s upcoming 13 Airbus A321s and six Boeing 787-9s. “Our recent aircraft order captures how we see the next five years or so,” Kapoor says, adding that he’s evaluating potential domestic and international routes for the fleet.
Vistara currently flies to 22 destinations within India – and from Delhi, Kochi and Bengaluru to London’s Heathrow Airport via Mumbai through a domestic codeshare with British Airways. Operating international routes means Vistara is better able to offer a consistent passenger experience all the way to the end of the journey. And then there is Kapoor’s duty of hiring ground and cabin service crews.
When it comes to recruiting fresh talent, some airlines may demand that job candidates have professional aviation industry experience. For Kapoor, who has seen startups flip their industries upside-down and is grappling with how Vistara can learn from their successes, this isn’t a requirement. At a hackathon hosted by the airline and held simultaneously in Delhi and Bengaluru in 2017, Kapoor said he tends to hire aviation bloggers and social media influencers.
“For these people, their work is their passion, and that is really the best situation for both the individuals and the company. If they can analyze airlines and devise route networks for free as a hobby and blog about it, imagine what they can do if they worked for an airline and got paid for it? These young folks also have deep networks in the Indian AvGeek community, and often identify competitor moves and network changes even before they are officially announced, by studying schedules and aircraft rotations in their spare time,” Kapoor says.
Just before the new year, Vistara also launched Fly Higher, a multimedia marketing campaign that insists discerning millennial travelers should not compromise on their high expectations for a career, lifestyle – or air travel. In the promotional videos, young professionals settle for no less than Vistara’s business and premium economy classes, and “look forward to flying again.”
“The business is extremely cyclical and moves quickly from feast to famine; nothing can be taken for granted.”
Kapoor aims to spread the notion of high standards across his teams, as well as, emphasizing the importance of being open, transparent and refusing to give up, while not underestimating ruthless airline competition: “There is the perception that the high rate of growth in recent years for aviation in India must mean it is a very healthy and profitable business. The business is extremely cyclical and moves quickly from feast to famine; nothing can be taken for granted,” he says.
Last year, Vistara earned a spot on Twitter’s list of top 10 brands in India, based on video views. This might be a draw for young talent who see the airline name among the likes of Google, Samsung and Huawei-owned smartphone brand Honor.
If Kapoor’s plan is to learn from the Ubers and Airbnbs of the world, then his vision for the future of Vistara is on the right track. “We see ourselves as growing in a controlled manner, slowly extending our footprint within and outside India and becoming the undisputed first choice for discerning travelers within, to and from India. We are here for the long haul (no pun intended), and realize this is a marathon, not a sprint.”
This article was originally published in the 9.1 February/March issue of APEX Experience magazine.