'King of the good times' facing $1b debt

The party may be over for India's "King of Good Times", Vijay Mallya, the flamboyant tycoon whose Kingfisher Airlines is threatened with collapse.

Mr Mallya's billionaire lifestyle has been a symbol of India's soaring fortunes since he launched his airline in 2005, and a factor in his reputation as "India's Richard Branson".

He owns a fleet of luxury vintage cars, bought his own Formula One racing team, Force India, sails a $100 million yacht in the Arabian Sea, and hand picks models as hostesses for his Kingfisher Airlines

He owns a fleet of luxury vintage cars, bought his own Formula One racing team, Force India, sails a $100 million yacht in the Arabian Sea, and hand picks "models" as hostesses for his Kingfisher Airlines.

Other models adorn the glossy pages of his Kingfisher Calendar while the garden of one his luxury homes is said to feature a life-size statue of the Bollywood actress and Big Brother star Shilpa Shetty.

Three years ago, Kingfisher Airlines launched a Mumbai to London Heathrow service to much fanfare, which has been followed up with a Delhi to London flight.

His acquisitions have included Britain's Whyte and Mackay distillers, which make the Dalmore and Jura single malt whiskies, and the French winemaker Bouvet-Ladubay, one of the world's largest producers of sparkling wine.

But today the "King of Good Times" appears to have lost his touch as the airline that lent glamour to his otherwise portly, primped appearance has nosedived under mounting debts.

Both private banks and government officials have ruled out a rescue package for India's second largest carrier. Kingfisher is reported to owe more than $1 billion in loans to Indian banks and is losing key staff as salaries go unpaid.

Travel agents are now advising passengers to boycott the airline in favour of rivals after a slew of cancelled Kingfisher flights.

Signs that Mr Mallya's debt crisis was mounting emerged earlier this year when he announced he was closing the low-budget Kingfisher Red airline to focus on a "full-service" operation.

But fears for the airline have intensified amid increased flight cancellations.

Last month, Mr Mallya put on a brave face to announce a deal for a rival tycoon to become an equal partner in Force India in exchange for a £60 million investment on the eve of India's first Grand Prix.

Leading Indian business figures said last night that they had sympathy for Mr Mallya, but it was a symptom of India's wider growth story.

Gopichand Hinduja, of the London-based Hinduja Group, said Mr Mallya had been a good brand ambassador for India, and that it was unfortunate Kingfisher had hit problems just as doubts over the country's "growth story" had halted major foreign investments.

He said airlines such as Kingfisher were key strategic assets for Indian business and tourism but all but a few were losing money because of high fuel prices and taxes.

The government should rescue the whole airline industry, he said.

"Vijay Mallya is a good friend of my family and has always presented India well. There should be a policy which can help with loan repayments," he said.

Subodh Agrawal, the London-based merchant banker who finances Indian takeovers, said while Mr Mallya might be flagging now, he believed Kingfisher's cancellations were part of a strategy to reconfigure his airliners and complete his withdrawal from the loss-making low-cost flight sector.

"India is going to suffer, but it isn't a story which has gone bad. In the long run the growth potential is huge. It is a smart move by Mallya to get out of low cost airlines," he said.

The "King of Good Times" would be back, he added.

Telegraph, London