The man who hated to fly

Everyone has their own favourite stories about Naresh Goyal. Here are a few.

NG (as his friends know him) was from Patiala in Punjab. He lost his father very early in life. His mother (whom he called Beeji) was an adopted sister of Seth Charan Das, major-domo to the Maharajah of Patiala. She begged Das to take NG, the youngest of four brothers, under his wing. Seth Charan Das was an entrepreneur and visionary. In the late 1960s (1965 to be exact) few used airlines for international travel. At that time, it was Seth Charan Das who offered to become general sales agent (GSA) for what was then called Middle Eastern Airways. 

The GSA was a concept that began in India. Although international airlines like British Airways, Air France and KLM had huge offices, they had no wherewithal to cater to passengers who were coming straight from villages in Punjab, for instance. The GSA recognised and serviced the distribution needs of big international airlines for a commission. GSAs were given territory and an office in Delhi. In those days, Jalandhar was the main hub for Punjab and the KLM and British Airways GSA used to operate from there.

NG learnt on the job. In the mid 1970s, he got friendly with an Air France manager and became the airline GSA for Goa — but he could sell in Bombay. That was big business and that’s how he grew his company. He got Europe and added other airlines to his portfolio. In 1972, he became the all-India GSA for Gulf Air. The Gulf jobs boom was about to start. He rode on the crest of the wave. In the early 1970s, he negotiated with Philippines Airlines and became their regional head: Although it had no flights to India! But it got him entry into IATA which helped him in networking. He has not missed a single IATA AGM ever. At one of them, he told Marion Blakley, the US Federal Aviation Authority chief: “I need to talk to you, don’t go anywhere”, and Blakely just stood while he went around the room pumping hands and pressing flesh. He took his time and the representative of the most powerful country in the world waited...

Naresh Goyal | Illustration: Binay Sinha
In 1996, CM Ibrahim was Civil Aviation Minister. It was a coalition government, the best time for a person like Naresh Goyal to get things done. The policy was a cap of 49 per cent FDI in a domestic airline; 100 per cent for non-resident Indians (NRIs) — and by then he had become an NRI — but no investment by any foreign airline directly or indirectly. That was how he scuttled Singapore International Airlines (SIA) investment in a new airline the Tatas wanted to start. It helped that he knew everyone in government.

Jet had standing instructions about a shortlist of politicians who were to be upgraded. But there are other ways of influencing them. Once, Sharad Pawar was sitting in an airport lounge watching cricket. Naresh Goyal has never played a game in his life. He doesn’t know the first thing about his cricket. Those who know him were amused to see him sitting next to Pawar, watching him closely and pretending to follow the game, applauding when Pawar applauded, although he probably didn’t know the front of the crease from the back!

Take the time Jet was about to be listed on the stock exchange. It was 2008. Hyderabad was hosting the air show. There was a lavish party at the Falaknuma Palace Hotel. Praful Patel was the Minister for Civil Aviation and there was talk that Jet might get permission to fly to the United States — it was a very big deal. 

Just around that time, in a bid to downsize, NG had sacked a whole lot of cabin crew and ground staff. So on the one hand there was this lavish dinner at the Falaknuma, on the other, Jet Airways staff were demonstrating at the Hyderabad Airport and sending petitions to Praful Patel that they had hungry children to feed. The government-run airline Air India was saying piously: “We will never sack anyone the way private airlines do”.

Patel, who was at the Falaknuma, was embarrassed and furious. So NG came up with a plan. He looked very serious as he called a press conference later that evening. There he said: “My mother came to me in my dream last night. She said: ‘Naresh, what are you doing? These people have families and children. How can you let them go?’ So I have decided to take back my orders. Nobody will be sacked.” 

Of course, over a period of time, those employees were transferred to such remote places that they had no choice but to quit. 

The irony is: Naresh Goyal hated to fly. He would get nervous and pray each time a flight took off. Now, there’s no Jet Airways and nowhere to go!