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As traffic on Mumbai roads slows to a crawl, some corporate bigwigs switch to helicopters and speedboats for their daily commute, reports Mini Pant Zachariah.

business Updated: May 09, 2009 22:32 IST
Mini Pant Zachariah
Mini Pant Zachariah
Hindustan Times

At 9 am when Vijay Shirke, managing director of the Shirke Group of Companies, a Rs 300-crore construction company, reaches his office in Pune, his secretary is ready with a list of his appointments for the day. There is a meeting with a local supplier at 9.30 am, followed by a visit to one of the company’s construction sites in Mumbai at noon followed by an appointment in Pune at 5 pm. He also has a family function to attend that evening.

Too much to pack in a day, one might think. But not really, since Shirke would breeze through the morning appointment and fly off to Mumbai at 10.30 am on his Bell Long Ranger helicopter for the site inspection, dash back to Pune for the 5 pm meeting and make it for the evening function in time.

Says Capt Sudarshanan, pilot of Shirke Group of Companies’ private helicopter since it was purchased in 1996, “The wastage of time (in commuting) is reduced to 80 per cent.” Shirke’s is one of the 27 helicopters privately owned by companies in India. Seventeen companies have their own helicopters.

In the busy world of the rich, the helicopter is becoming like the Blackberry, says a corporate communications person who does not wish to be identified. In India’s business capital of Mumbai, where traffic is a row of crawling cars at the best of times, tycoons in a hurry take the aerial route from the temporary helipad at Mahalaxmi Race Course or the domestic airport at Santa Cruz.

Mukesh Ambani uses his AS 365 helicopter to make a quick dash from Nariman Point in Mumbai’s southern tip to their operations in Navi Mumbai 50 km away. And often, when his senior executives have to visit the company’s work sites at Jamnagar or the Krishna-Godavari basin, a helicopter is a necessity. When you have to visit oil rigs 70 km from land, there are only two options: a boat that takes three hours or a helicopter that takes 20 minutes. In the corporate world where time is big money, the choice is clear. From Vijay Mallya to Vijaypath Singhania, helicopters are a common mode of travel for business tycoons on on the move.

Not all the rich and the famous use their own private choppers. Some 55, including Anil Ambani, operate helicopters under the non-scheduled operators’ permit (NSOP) that allows them to lease out their aircraft for commercial purposes. They, of course, have the first choice of using it.

For instance, says Sanjiv Bajaj of Bajaj Auto, “Bajaj Auto operates an Agusta Grande helicopter and a Global 5000 aircraft under NSOP charter services. These are used on chargeable basis like any other air charter company in India both within the group and also by other companies.”

Many helicopter hire services have come into existence now because of the high demand from busy executives to make quick trips to their place of work. If you hire a chopper from a service provider you’ll end up paying Rs 75,000 to Rs 1.5 lakh an hour. Should you own your helicopter, the operating cost could be Rs 25,000 to Rs 40,000 per hour depending on the craft. “In a day a helicopter ferry industry heads from Mumbai to Thane or Navi Mumbai would cost a minimum of Rs 1 lakh,” says an aviation source.

While most high fliers opt for the helicopter, Mumbai businessman Sagar Jondhale looked around him and found the vast Arabian Sea beckoning. Commuting to Dombivli in Thane from Prabhadevi 60 km away by road was daunting and the overcrowded and erratic Harbour Line rail connection was never an option for him. “From my Prabhadevi residence in Mumbai to my office in Dombivli, the commute by road was at least two hours each way. I would often get bugged with the traffic even though I was sitting in a comfortable car,” says Jondhale.

So necessity forced him to invent a cooler, quicker way to commute. He noticed fishing trawlers leaving Dombivli via the Dombivli creek. So he decided to get a speedboat that would get him home faster. He travels 75 km by water compared to 60 km by road and still arrives at the destination 45 minutes sooner.

His boat comes fitted with a small shower to wash the sand off your feet, a tiny chemical toilet and a chiller stacked with cold drinks. And the boat, a Bayliner 245, a sea-faring boat with a 220-horse-power engine, can reach a speed of 80 to 100 kmph, though the ideal cruising speed is 60 to 65 kmph. The boat does not have air-conditioning but Jondhale is not complaining as the sea breeze and sunsets more than make up.

Says Jondhale, “Three to five years from now, when second-hand Nanos start selling for Rs 30,000, I’ll be smiling at the scene from the sea.”

First Published: May 09, 2009 22:23 IST