Introducing a new weekly column on the city, its people and their lives by Business strategist, writer and columnist Sanjay Mukherjee. He will write for Pune365 every Tuesday.
The first time I flew outside the country, it was in 2006. I flew to Hong Kong, accompanied by the Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the Pune-based learning technology company I then worked with. As the flight attendant placed my dinner all neatly arranged in a little tray that fit quite nicely on my tiny ‘dining table”, I was grinning ear to ear. It was not just my first international flight – it was the first time I had ever sat inside an airplane.
The COO was really amused (he was younger than I was and well travelled). He said to me: “You are starting your global travel experience with a trip to Hong Kong.” He thought about it for a few moments, and then wistfully said: “Enjoy the trip because after Hong Kong, it’s all downhill no matter where you go.”
Since then, I have been from Pune to several destinations in North America, Europe, South Asia, South East Asia, and the Middle East and you know what all those trips had in common to that first flight to Hong Kong? I had to fly every one of them from Mumbai. You see, Pune still isn’t on the map of direct flights in world travel.
At various points in the last decade, there has been the odd “international” flight to and from Pune. At present, I think Jet Airways has one to Abu Dhabi while Spicejet flies Pune-Dubai. Earlier, there used to be direct flights to Singapore and Frankfurt from different airlines.
From a travel budget perspective, air travel is not exactly economical in India and when one travels from Pune, there are three cost elements that get added, depending on the flight schedule:
Pune-Mumbai-Pune (or Delhi, Bengaluru) travel (flight or road)
Overnight hotel costs (if it’s an early morning flight)
Time – one needs to add 4-5 hours to each leg of the journey
For business and work travel, even if you fly, say 20 times a year, the cost and productivity impact suddenly starts stacking up. If you travel moderately, or frequently (say you are on the road more than 100 days a year), the accountant should be tearing their hair out, explaining why it might be cheaper to move. Convenience and ease of air travel considerations are completely different conversations.
Why is it important to be able to travel from Pune? I’ll tell you but let’s see how it is on the domestic front while we are at it.
You can fly from Pune to Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Kolkata with some ease. Some ease. But try flying further East, West, North, North-East or South from Pune and you’ll find yourself going via one of the bigger airports. Basically, the entire air travel industry in India seems to be built to drive traffic to the mega-airports that are being built in our metro hubs. And all the other grand visions of making air travel accessible I guess will remain grand visions till we have a smarter (and braver) viewpoint to really developing the next-tier cities (mini-metros). To develop a nation, we need to look at cities like Pune and make them really accessible from a domestic and global perspective, because really big business does not really happen over Skype calls and WhatsApp all the time. Plus, it would take a really visionary low-cost airline to develop networks in Tier 2, 3, 4, cities (like Southwest did in the USA).
And so here I am, in 2016, just back from a three-nights, three-days sprint to Singapore, for a 4-hour meeting, which could easily have been an overnight trip if I had a direct flight to Singapore. And now I am thinking: Whatever happened to the new international airport that every government and political party has been talking about at least for a decade now? Governments have come and governments have gone but the new international airport is yet to arrive. Why can’t I fly out of Pune? Why? Why? Why? Hmm?
(Given that land hasn’t been acquired for the new airport yet, I think it’ll be faster if I build an Iron Man suit …)
Sanjay Mukherjee is a Pune-based business consultant. He is Founder of RedstoneSummerhill and The Mountain Walker and also serves as Chief Strategy Advisor for the Hong Kong-based learning technology company, Peak Pacific Limited