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Virgin chief to visit India

BS Corporate Bureau in New Delhi | November 24, 2004

Richard Branson, the chairman of the Virgin Group, is coming to India on November 27 for a two-day philanthropy-cum-business visit.

During his stay, besides pledging funds for charity, Branson is also expected to lobby for easier foreign investment norms in the aviation sector.

Apart from looking to pick up stake in low-cost carrier Air Deccan, the British billionaire also wants to operate more flights to India.

His plan of investing in Air Deccan has been grounded since the present norms prevent foreign airlines from investing in Indian carriers. Branson has said on more than one occasion that he is in talks with Indian carriers for possible investment opportunities.

Branson's flagship Virgin Atlantic is currently competing with British Airways and BMI for a larger share in the 42 additional services that India and Britain have decided to add.

Currently, the 19 flights permitted to UK carriers by the Indian government are all used by British Airways. The airline operates seven flights a week each to Delhi and Mumbai, three to Kolkata, and two to Chennai.

At present, Virgin flies three times a week to Delhi by taking three of Air-India's unused slots under a code-sharing agreement with the  Maharaja, which ends in early December.

When the two governments announced the increase in flights, Branson had said:  "Virgin Atlantic is delighted at the results of the air services talks. We have always dreamt of operating more frequent services to Delhi and to launch flights to Mumbai. As British Airways already operates 19 services to and from India, we expect that Virgin Atlantic will be awarded the rights to operate the majority of these new services."

This is Branson's third visit to India. He was first in India in December 1999 to persuade the government to open more routes for other UK carriers.

During his second visit in July 2000, a colorful one by any yardstick, Branson landed in Delhi on the first Virgin Atlantic flight wearing a traditional red Punjabi lungi and shirt.

He came out of the Boeing 747-400 named Ruby Tuesday, dancing the bhangra. He then rode an auto rickshaw through Connought Place to launch the airlines' operations in India.

The charismatic Branson may repeat the same if he is allowed by British civil aviation authorities to operate more flights to India or if India relaxes its aviation investment norms.

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