Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

'Indians are willing to pay extra for quality': Lufthansa's Heike Birlenbach

The senior vice president (sales), Lufthansa Hub Airlines, speaks to Forbes India on why businesses are on slippery ground if their bottom line is not under control

Rajiv Singh
Published: Oct 10, 2019 09:47:28 AM IST
Updated: Oct 10, 2019 09:49:52 AM IST

'Indians are willing to pay extra for quality': Lufthansa's Heike BirlenbachHeike Birlenbach

Heike Birlenbach, senior vice president (sales), Lufthansa Hub Airlines, was in India recently to take part in the fourth edition of Lufthansa Startup Expo. She spoke to Forbes India about the aviation industry and on startups and unicorns. Edited excerpts:   
On 60 years in India
We are proud to be here. We are happy to be a part of the aviation industry which is growing, and are committed to the Indian marketplace. The Indian market is a strategic market for us, both in terms of customers coming here and Indians travelling out of the country. 
On Indian market and passengers
The number of people travelling has increased, and the reasons for it have changed. Earlier, it was more about visiting friends and relatives. Over the last few decades, businesses increased tremendously. Indians are now travelling to explore the world. 
On premiumisation of flyers
Premiumisation is a trend. Indians look for the value they get and are willing to pay extra for services and quality. Indians not only know exactly what they want, but are also able to articulate that. This is good because we can respond to those needs. Travelling is not only about a price offer or going from point A to B. It’s about the features that are incorporated into the travel experience. 
On domestic Indian players
I believe it depends on whether the respective carriers are able to cater to the needs of customers and keep their operations under control by having an efficient set-up, partnering with the right ones and focusing on services. But there is demand in domestic travel and investments in infrastructure by the government. This will push more traffic within India, and outside as well. 
On how to control top line and bottom line
Balancing is the right word. If you only work on the top line and grow too fast, but don’t have your bottom line under control, it means you don’t have costs in check. Then you are on a slippery ground. You need to ensure that as the top line increases, you have costs under control and work on efficiency to improve bottom line. Without a solid bottom line, it is difficult to grow, either in India or Europe. 
On unicorns
If you look at the startup scene and the number of unicorns in India—Delhi-NCR alone has 10—it’s tremendous. Unicorns not only bring business but also inspire youngsters who want to become entrepreneurs. So there is value around unicorns. 
On advice to startup founders
For startups, it’s (fail fast and scale fast) important. Not all startups make it to the top or become unicorns. Look early for partners, and don’t develop everything yourself. There is a higher chance of making money if one partners with somebody that has competencies needed in business. Make sure you have a right storyline, and then tell your story.

(This story appears in the 25 October, 2019 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)