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Ready to soar

Punjab's planespeak

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A gleaming red-and-white canopy opens and Anil Soni climbs into a 330-cubicfoot pressurised passenger cabin. The time on his wristwatch, which has a fine tourbillion (a beautiful revolving mechanism), is ticking fast. He has already ditched his boutique sedans and SUVs, which wouldn't be able to make the 450 km to Delhi in 90 minutes.

"All right, so I have my phone in flight mode, " the Ludhiana-based industrialist, who owns Kabir Agro, says to his pilot. The latter quickly gets in and checks the joystick of the Pilatus PC 12, Soni's personal turboprop nine-seater Swiss plane. "Hello this is VT MEG. Request permission to start, " he says into a microphone.

Even as Soni jokes about flying only to avoid annoyances like airport security, lost baggage and beverage carts banging into his elbow in the plane, at least two more leading industrialists from Ludhiana are already separately on their way from Delhi in their private planes. Punjab's industrial circuit evidently occupies a significant place on the roster of personal jet travellers in India.

One of the industrialists is Neeraj Saluja, scion of a $300 million empire. The MD of SEL Industries owns a Beechcraft King Air C 90, a plane that sets one back by a staggering Rs 25 crore to Rs 35 crore. This seven-seater comes with an ultra-quiet cabin that has refreshment cabinets and a heated, pressurised aft baggage area and leather seats that can track, swivel and recline.

The aircraft, known among aviation experts for its versatility and ruggedness in short flights, can cruise up to 270 knots airspeed (311 mph) at 20, 000 feet with low fuel flow rates. "It's an aircraft that is at ease on all sorts of runways and unimproved strips and hot and high-altitude departure scenarios, " says VP Jain, manager at Ludhiana's Sahnewal Airport.

Sahnewal Airport, incidentally, has been facing flak for lack of navigational aids, and has only one commercial airline - Air India - operating between Ludhiana and New Delhi. It's the reason why most businessmen from Punjab are forced to opt for air travel from Amritsar or the state capital, Chandigarh. It's also the reason why Ranbir Singh, another business tycoon and owner of the GNA Group from the neighbouring Jalandhar, went on to make an airstrip of his own.

The company that sold its aircraft to Singh says the demand for private jets in Punjab is now growing at almost 50 per cent on a year-toyear basis. "We were very excited to learn that a private airstrip had been built in Punjab. The GNA chairman bought our Zen Air Stol CH 701, which is a short take-off and landing kit aircraft for sporty pilots. In an agricultural state like this, buying such machines is indeed a buoyant trend, " says Bangalore-based Hemanth Raj, manager for Zenith Air in India.

Other industrialist flyers abound. Capt SS Dhillon, a pilot and Chandigarh-based entrepreneur, has a Piper PA-18 Super Cub, a two-seater monoplane which he uses for both business and pleasure. Distillery magnate Satyajit Majithia, whose daughter and Bathinda MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal is married to the Punjab chief minister's son, has put Punjab on the aviation map by setting up a huge private air-taxi service industry in the country. However, Majithia, chairman of Saraya Aviation, who himself flies between Amritsar, Delhi and Gorakhpur on his King Air, says that neither the opulence nor the craze for air travel is new. "Even in the 1960s, when we had five Beechcrafts, we often used to fly the Munjals (Hero Group) and Oswals out of Safdarjung, Ludhiana, Chandigarh and Jaipur, " he says.

Soni concurs. "I actually fell in love with flying when I took a joy ride in 1969 in an aircraft owned by a Jalandhar-based flier, " he says. "I was only 16, otherwise I would have gone in for the PPL (private pilot's licence) the same year. " The industrialist has fond memories of his Beechcraft Bonanza in which he flew several politicians like A B Vajpayee, Shatrughan Sinha, Vinod Khanna and Rajesh Pilot.

With India Inc on the global growth path, private jets are not just symbols of power and money but also an essential need for these businessmen. A Bombardier study says that for every 400 hours a businessman flies his jet, he saves almost a month's time. On the other hand, many businessmen of Punjab have learnt to fly just as a hobby. There are as many as three flying clubs in the state - the Patiala Aviation Club, Amritsar Flying Club and Ludhiana Flying Club - where the sons and daughters of affluent families often take lessons during summers.

With more and more joining the billionaire club, Punjab now seems ready to soar beyond its Maybachs, Rolls Royces and BMWs.

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