In an increasingly competitive market notorious for accidents and flight delays-and dominated by state-run behemoth Indian Airways-Mr. Wahid knew the fledgling private air taxi operator that flew to 26 Indian cities had to overcome not just corporate rivalry but public perceptions about air travel.
"We really had to make everything from scratch," says Mr. Wahid, 28. "That's why [leading rival] Indian Airlines wondered how on earth an airline like this was going to make an infrastructure from A to Z. They had everything, plus surplus, but they didn't want to give any help to a private airline."
His efforts paid off. East West took in $44 million in 1992, enjoying a $2.6 million profit, as long-established Indian Airlines suffered a $50 million loss. Last year East West more than doubled its revenues, reaching the $100 million mark.
With only 10 planes, East West has flown and entertained 30 million passengers in 21/2 years, since Mr. Wahid and his four brothers, who operate India's largest travel agency, East West, took advantage of India's loosening of government restrictions in 1989.
Mr. Wahid wooed travel agents with incentives and sent direct mail to frequent business travelers, and he kept prices competitive, ranging from between $80 and $120 for typical one-way flights from Bombay to Madras.
But it was a range of eccentric marketing tactics he developed, virtually unknown in the world of civil aviation, that set East West apart. He delights passengers with impromptu in-flight magic shows, ice cream festivals and live pop music programs. At the end of one flight featuring a live fashion show, several business travelers refused to disembark.
Others couldn't seem to capture that same spirit. One rival, Damania Airways, carrying a copycat promotion a bit too far, was grounded for a chaotic beer fest during an early morning flight.
Supporting his unusual program is a $950,000 print campaign from Enterprise Advertising, which lampoons competitors' epic delays and dismal safety records. Other ads trace the upstart's brief history and stress that it uses highly qualified mechanics with experience at prestigious airlines such as Aer Lingus and British Airways.
Despite the airline's success, Mr. Wahid isn't satisfied. He plans to start a business class and international flights to the Gulf, pending state approval.
And East West has applied to upgrade its classification from "air taxi service" to airline to prove it's no fly-by-night operator. But Mr. Wahid figures the airline is already legitimate: Rival Indian Airlines now, for the first time in its history, has set up a marketing and sales team.