Several international airlines, including British Airways and Singapore Airlines, have shown interest in buying Air India, a senior Air India official told Fortune India, days after India’s largest airline Indigo and Naresh Goyal’s Jet Airways flew out of the bid to buy the debt-ridden national carrier.
Only Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines confirmed their interest in buying the national carrier, of which the Indian government plans to sell a 76% stake.
The Air India official told Fortune India on the condition of anonymity that British Airways, German airlines Lufthansa, Etihad Airways, Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines are keen to buy Air India.
“We have received a lot of informal interest from foreign carriers because of Air India’s massive domestic and international network. The Indian government is considering these global airlines as serious contenders for Air India,” the official said. “These carriers are looking for Indian partners for the bid. We still don’t know whether Singapore Airlines will bid through domestic airlines Vistara or through another partner. Those details have not been communicated to us, but Singapore Airlines has expressed a lot of interest in the company.”
In an interview with Fortune India last month, David Lim, general manager of Singapore Airlines had said, “We are open to bidding for Air India. What attracts us is the carrier’s massive network in India. We don’t have that kind of access to the Indian market, and Air India gives us that opportunity.”
A senior Etihad Airways official says Air India’s bilateral rights, aircraft fleet and airport slots will add a lot of value to their business. “We have been eyeing the Indian market, and this seems to be the perfect opportunity provided the deal favours the buyer,” he says.
Last month, the Indian government released its Preliminary Information Memorandum (PIM), which spelled out Air India’s divestment plans. The government had said it will sell 76% of its stake in Air India and Air India Express, and 50% stake in Air India SATS Private Limited. However, a foreign player can only bid for Air India only in partnership with an Indian entity; a foreign buyer will have a 49% stake in Air India and the remaining 51% will be with the Indian partner.
As a part of the deal, the buyer will also get Rs 33,392 crore debt—of the total Rs 51,000 crore debt as on December 31, 2017—which has been seen a major deterrent by analysts. The government has finalised May 14, 2018, as the last date for the Expression of Interest.
The Air India official adds that the Washington DC-headquartered International Finance Corporation (IFC) has also shown interest in acquiring Air India. “They have reached out to our partners Ernst & Young and have said they want to invest and will also underwrite the debt for their Indian partner,” the official tells Fortune India.
Reports suggest that Turkish ground handling firm Celebi and Swiss Aviation are also keen to bid for Air India, but the Central government is not sure of them.
Air India caters to 42 international destinations and over 70 domestic locations.
Air India’s losses started mounting from 2007 when it merged with Indian Airlines to form the National Aviation Company of India Ltd (NACIL). At the time of the merger, both Air India and Indian Airlines were incurring annual losses of Rs 541 crore and Rs 240 crore respectively. After the merger, NACIL had over 30,000 employees—twice the global standards. Employee costs were high and the synergy between the workforces of the two companies never happened. Besides, poor HR policies—such as Free Passage Policy for family members and disproportionate performance-linked-incentives for employees of the erstwhile Indian Airlines—added to costs. This, coupled with high fuel costs and poor economic conditions that led to rising debts, competition and negative publicity worsened the situation.