Omnibus: Super-luxury buses gear up to give air travel a run
COACHING CLASS: Luxury buses are targetting travellers who are fed up with soaring air fares and the travails of booking railway tickets.
On an online travel forum, an American tourist recounts with fascination his journey from Delhi to Shimla on a state bus 20 years ago. "It started with a window seat, and ended al fresco, with me — and a few hundred other people and their livestock — on the roof of the bus. It was by far the most enjoyable ride I've had."
Having thus raised the bar for foreign tourists — by giving them, and everyone else, the everyday equivalent of a theme park ride — intercity buses have sobered up in the last decade. They've worked hard at safety and sophistication and sworn off their weakness for on-road circus tricks, ring-mastered , as was often the case, by a happy inebriate.
But not content to stop at a straight drive, superior suspension, air-conditioning and drapes, buses today offer a host of luxury features that actually rival aircraft travel. Gliding on Volvo and Daimler chassis , Wi-fi-enabled interiors fitted out with personal LCD screens and preloaded DVDs, 23-inch seats that recline almost 160 degrees, with restrooms and pantries, sometimes even a spa out back, they're far from the bile-streaked deathtraps that once took you to the hills. Some tour operators are peddling them as '7-star coaches at first class train fares' . For customers, wedged between a rock (runaway air fares) and a hard place (trains), these new liners of luxury are just the ticket.
Yesterday, Siddhi Vinayak Logistic Ltd (SVLL), the commercial vehicles manufacturer introduced its ultra-luxurious '7-star' bus, the SVLL Connect in Surat. These vehicles have been manufactured by Scania, the Swedish automotive manufacturer, operating now in India . About 120 SVLL Connect buses will hit the roads in two years, fanning out initially to the south and west. "Keeping in mind corporate needs, the bus will house a conference room with projectors and Wi-Fi connection, and will match aircraft comfort," says Deepak Baid, director SVLL. In addition to the bells and whistles, these buses will also cut short travel time. "These 31-seaters with all the necessary facilities will reduce travel time by at least 15%," he promises.
According to TEAMPro, a market consultancy, the Indian luxury bus segment is currently valued at Rs 3,000 crore, with an annual growth rate of 15% to 20%. Having done the math, some tour operators have opted for the high road after weighing such factors as improved road networks, demanding customers and limited options in transport. They're ready to invest up to Rs 3 crore per modified vehicle.
Parveen Travels, a travel company confined, till now, to south India , claims to be the first in the country to introduce online bus reservation and complete passenger insurance cover, as well as the first to offer a two-channel personal entertainment system. Mohammed A Aarif, director, says 20 % of his fleet of over 800 buses belongs to the top tier. "The luxury bus segment is bound to grow," he predicts, "Aviation prices are rising and not everyone prefers trains and tickets are hard to come by," he says. Parveen recorded a growth of 22% last year.
With talk of cabin crew, gourmet meals, conference rooms, and onboard entertainment, you could fool yourself into believing you're flying, even if on the road. What's more, companies like SVLL and The Blue Hills Group — it plies the Olivea line of super luxury buses — even have premium lounges. Olivea also boasts of a customer loyalty programme.
"We see a major surge towards bus travel with more luxury coaches coming up for intercity and interstate travel," says Mohit Grover, Inventory Manager with the ticketing company Redbus.in, one of the many that have emerged to meet the market. Of the 30,000 bookings a day, 70% account for luxury buses at Redbus. "Air travel is still not the preferred option for shorter routes which can be covered in 6-10 hours by bus because of the price difference . So, those who want a comfortable journey and don't mind paying a little extra, luxury bus travel is becoming a viable choice," he says.
Even state transport companies like Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), one of India's most ambitious public transport bodies, are laying out the works. "Some of our top, multi-axle , buses have chemical toilets, individual TVs with 70 channels, pantries, and Wi-Fi ," lists N Manjunatha Prasad, MD, KSRTC. Although only about 35 of their fleet of 8,300 buses are part of the smart set (called Airavat), KSRTC purchased 50 additional vehicles a month ago and is in the process of upgrading them.
Vikram Bhat, a student, says he is often surprised by Airavat's customer care. "I was waiting to board the bus in Mumbai when I got a call from the driver. The usual route was blocked, he told me, so would I please come to another pick-up point. I also receive an SMS with driver details before a journey. Tickets are always available and in the new twin-axle buses even the last row seats are not a punishment."
He ticks off 24-inch-wide seats (" first class plane seats are 21 inches wide" ); fully powered seats that recline ; 5,000 pre-loaded movies; individual tables and chillers; 20 inch LCD screens; enough headroom for a 6-footer to stand; a screen that sequesters you from the seats in front.
That should be enough to make the airlines quake.