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Boeing's India Man

By Anjuli Bhargava
December 14, 2018 11:04 IST
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Till high school, his medium of learning was Marathi.
Later, he completed his doctorate under Neil Armstrong's guidance.
He has travelled to close to 50 countries, sold $350 billion worth of aircraft.
Anjuli Bhargava meets Boeing SVP Dinesh Keskar.
Illustration: Dominic Xavier/

He's designed them, built them, fixed them, sold them, flown incessantly in them and even jumped out of them.

As a result, Dinesh Keskar, 64, senior vice-president of sales for Asia Pacific and India, Boeing Commercial Airplanes, has enough miles to take him to the moon and back eight times over.

The man who completed his doctorate under the guidance of Neil Armstrong is, however, yet to make that one journey.

Airplanes are evidently in Dr Keskar's blood as he's never too far off from one.

His house and office in Seattle are close to the airport.

Even our meeting place -- the Hyatt Regency in Mumbai -- is right next to the airport.


I know about his deep connection with airplanes because we have known each other for many years now and have met several times before, but I only get to know the extent of it during the course of this lunch.

We are meeting two days after the Jet Airways board meeting on November 12.

He's here in connection with Jet's troubles on one of his whirlwind Asia trips.

He's come for a day to Mumbai from somewhere and is heading somewhere else, as always.

We sit next to the pool and order a margherita pizza and a vegetarian stir-fry with rice.

He decides to go vegetarian so we can share.

We quickly exchange notes on Jet and Naresh Goyal's options -- far more limited than the menu before us -- and then begin our chat.

One of the three sons of a college professor in a middle-class family with a strong emphasis on education, Dr Keskar grew up in Amravati in Maharashtra.

Till high school, his medium of learning was Marathi and only in the last three years did he move into English medium.

After finishing his mechanical engineering from a regional college in Nagpur with a gold medal in 1975, he headed for his master's in aeronautical engineering to the University of Cincinnati.

He followed it up with his doctorate in aerospace engineering under Neil Armstrong's guidance.

He still remembers the day in October 1978, when, after four hours of grueling interview to defend his thesis before a board that was to grant him his degree, Armstrong came out and said, 'Congratulations, Dr Keskar'.

The food has arrived and it looks excellent.

But time is at a premium and we can't focus on the meal much.

It was in June 1980 that he started working with Boeing -- initially in flight control system design when Boeing was designing B757 and B767.

Soon, he moved to future flight control systems.

After five years, he got picked up to work for a programme called EXPO (executive potential) that allowed him to look at other parts of Boeing.

The marketing and sales side of it looked exciting and that's when he decided to back up his PhD with an MBA.

He was hired in marketing as a manager in 1987.

There's been no looking back in what can only be described as a never-ending affair with airplanes.

He has travelled to close to 50 countries around the world, sold US$350 billion worth of aircraft (always a team effort) and flown over 4 million miles in airplanes to do that.

In addition, he has flown an extra million miles on holidays and travel with family.

Five million miles on airplanes in 30 years?

I envy him for the number of countries he has ended up visiting, but I know I don't envy him for the hours he spent in aircraft getting there.

In August 1991 Dr Keskar struck his first big deal -- four B747-400s for Air India when Rajan Jaitley was managing director and Ratan Tata chairman.

Four may sound like nothing today when airlines purchase over 50 or even 100 planes at one shot without blinking an eye, but back then it was a big break for Boeing in India.

He spotted one of those aircraft -- now more than 25 years old -- at the Mumbai airport on this trip and was overcome with "happy waves of nostalgia".

Air India played a bigger role in his life than one can imagine -- he met his wife -- a former flight attendant with Air India -- while on the job.

Typically, he spends over 200 days a year out of home, a heavy price to pay but something all sales people in aviation end up doing.

His wife and son have accompanied him whenever feasible for big first deliveries; he shows me a much cherished photograph of his son -- the 7 year old's eyes shining with excitement at being in the cockpit of the first B747 delivered to Air India back in 1993.

"One is away a lot and that's hard, but there are these small joys too," he adds wistfully.

That was also the time he met the people who would go on to shape Indian aviation over the next few decades -- be it J R D Tata, Ratan Tata, Naresh Goyal or Parvez Damania.

He closely witnessed the birth, death and evolution of several Indian airlines -- East West, Royal Airways-Modiluft-SpiceJet and a whole host of non-starters.

"You don't know who will eventually set up and who won't, but you have to work with everybody with equal seriousness," he points out.

India has far exceeded everyone's expectations and kept many on their feet or rather in the air.

Boeing is known for its market forecasts:

The first one in 2000 had predicted a total market value of what India would buy would be $25 billion.

Today, it's close to $200 billion and one of every 20 airplanes Boeing makes comes to India.

Till the early 2000s, it was Boeing that dominated the Indian skies.

Its three mainstays have been Jet, Air India and SpiceJet and very recently Vistara has been added to the list of clients for wide-bodied aircraft.

It was after the low fare revolution hit India and the narrow bodies came in that Boeing lost its stranglehold over the Indian market and Airbus, its famed rival, made the most of it.

He says this was inevitable since it is near impossible for a sole manufacturer to dominate a market forever.

He thinks with the coming of Max now, they will catch up with the Neos and have a pretty even market share in narrow body aircraft too.

"This is not only for aviation; if people see one guy making all the money, others will jump in. That's marketing 101", he argues.

In 2002, Dr Keskar was made vice-president of sales for Boeing and had a much wider region under his command.

In addition, he was responsible for Boeing's aircraft trading.

By 2009, he was made president for Boeing India and his portfolio was expanded to include military aircraft.

But commercial aircraft sales was really his first love and that's what he has excelled in and subsequently stuck to.

He is now in charge of the entire Asia Pacific region.

He joyfully lists all his "converts": Those who were primarily Airbus-led but who are now or will be all-Boeing in the next few years.

But for all his safe landings, one landing he did on his own two feet went wrong in 2003-2004.

With his comfort level with aircraft clearly high, Dr Keskar had begun dabbling with para-jumping and did a few exhilarating jumps out of aircraft at 14,000 feet.

The first few jumps were thrilling, but on his fifth or sixth jump in California, he landed wrong and injured his foot.

"The parachute weights a ton and one has to know how to land. Like with an airplane, you land with the nose up and then you lower the nose, with a parachute you have to keep running till its weight is off your back. I didn't do it right," he explains.

That effectively put an end to his short-lived affair with jumping out of planes.

He needs a knee replacement as a result, but he's managed to dodge it so far.

His golf and tennis have taken a hit as a result.

Travelling, reading and his love for islands like Tahiti, Fiji and Maldives ensure there's never a dull moment.

I ask him how India could fix its aviation industry.

Are we doomed to watch airlines going under?

As he explains the economics of running a successful airline and lists all that the Indian government and carriers need to do to improve the economics of the business, I realise he could run an airline as well as any of the present CEOs.

That's probably the only thing that he hasn't done yet, I tell myself, as I watch him leave for that one place he seems to be headed to:

The airport to catch his next flight.

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Anjuli Bhargava Mumbai
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