The Indian aviation landscape is very different from what it was 20 years ago. As hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when only a handful of carriers monopolized the sector, and air connectivity to small towns was practically unheard of. All of that happened in living memory of most Indians. While IndiGo, SpiceJet and other LCCs have been lauded (and rightly so) for revolutionizing air travel in India, what happened to the airline that started it all – Air Deccan?
A US vacation gave birth to the idea
Capt. Gopinath, a retired Indian Army officer, founded Deccan Aviation, India’s first private helicopter charter service, in 1997. As reported by the BBC, in 2000, when he was vacationing in Phoenix, US, air traffic at the local airport caught his attention. He found out that the airport handled 1,000 flights and 100,000 passengers a day. One US airport handling more than all 40 airports in India put together.
Back then, the US saw 40,000 daily commercial flights; India operated 420. Most Indians still traveled by train and couldn’t even dream of flying the handful of expensive domestic carriers. Gopinath thought that even if he captured a tiny fraction of the 500+ million Indians who took the trains, he could have a successful venture.
At that time, carriers like Indian Airlines and Jet Airways were to India what American Airlines and United Airlines were to the US. But what was India’s answer to the US’ Southwest Airlines?
Air Deccan becomes India’s first low-cost airline
In August 2003, Capt. Gopinath founded Air Deccan, starting with a fleet of six ATR turboprops. The carrier’s first flight took off the next month, flying between Hyderabad and Vijayawada. It didn’t take long for Air Deccan to spread roots in the country. The carrier saw a huge customer inflow by announcing “early bird” fares of just ₹1 for many of its flights.
By 2004, Air Deccan had made its intentions pretty clear by undercutting the competition. The carrier made headlines when it introduced “dyna fares” on flights between major metropolitan cities. When booked months in advance, some Air Deccan seats on the Delhi-Chennai route could be booked for as low as ₹500 plus taxes. A regular one-way fare between the two cities was around ₹7,000 back then. For Indian flyers, this was unheard of.
Air Deccan was the first major Indian carrier that truly connected tier-1 and -2 cities in India. Cities like Madurai, Belgaum, Gwalior were now within reach of air travelers without burning a deep hole in the pocket. By 2007, Air Deccan was deploying 45 airplanes a day on 380 flights to 67 airports.
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The golden run comes to an end
Within a few years, other low-cost players had entered the fray, and fuel prices had risen sharply, and by 2007 Air Deccan couldn’t maintain the lead it once had in the LCC market. It just so happened that another full-service Indian carrier Kingfisher Airlines was looking to expand into the international market. It did not have the mandatory five years of operational history required by the Indian authorities to fly overseas. Kingfisher saw a way out by acquiring Air Deccan to fulfill that requirement.
Knee-deep in losses, Gopinath agreed for Air Deccan to be acquired by Kingfisher. The carrier was first rebranded as Simplifly Deccan, and its fleet took on the livery of Kingfisher. By 2008, Simplifly Deccan merged with Kingfisher Airlines into a single corporate entity but maintained a separate brand as Kingfisher’s low-cost sibling Kingfisher Red. According to ch-aviation, Kingfisher Red’s fleet had the following aircraft:
- A320-200: 25
- ATR42-300: 7
- ATR42-500: 10
- ATR72-500: 11
As the world would soon find out, the merger was a huge mistake. Kingfisher found it difficult to sustain both a full-service airline and its low-cost subsidiary. As covered by Simple Flying in detail, Kingfisher Airlines ceased operations in 2012 following massive losses.
Capt. Gopinath acquired the rights to the name Air Deccan again, and in 2017 started as a regional operator in western India. Air Deccan bagged 34 routes under the government’s UDAN scheme that promotes regional connectivity in the country. However, as of 2020, following India’s post-COVID shutdown, the airline has ceased operations indefinitely.