When he was a child, G.R. Gopinath, founder of Air Deccan, India’s first low-fare airline, attended a village school where his father was a teacher — often going barefoot to class. “My story — and Air Deccan’s story — is the story of the new India, the India of possibilities,” he says. After working for some eight years in the Indian army, where he rose to the rank of captain, Gopinath went into business for himself. After an ineffective start at farming that landed him in debt, he refocused his efforts on sustainable, eco-friendly crops that eventually succeeded and also brought an award for what he calls “innovations in ecological practices.”
All that changed soon after India liberalized its economy in the early 1990s. Gopinath met a former Army colleague, a pilot who was out of work — one of hundreds of pilots who needed jobs. “I decided to set up a helicopter company because I felt the ecology was right,” he says. India had lots of unemployed pilots, the country was going through economic reforms, and there was no helicopter company that could provide services ranging from aerial photography to geological surveys for mining. “I felt I couldn’t go wrong. That’s how I started, with one helicopter, 10 years ago,” Gopinath says. From that start in aviation, Gopinath went on to build Air Deccan.
Today, Air Deccan is India’s second largest airline, with 40 aircraft that fly to 60 destinations around the country. In an interview with India Knowledge at Wharton, Gopinath discusses the beginnings of his entrepreneurial journey.