“I have been asking this question since day one. What is left to revive except huge debts”, says Suresh Nair, former Jet Airways employee and an aviation industry veteran. Nair joined Jet Airways from Cathay Pacific in February 1996 as general manager for North India, Nepal and Pakistan—when the airline had only 6 aircraft and Delhi was the only online station in North India. The CEO back then was Nikos Kardassis, and Nair worked very clearly with him to set up ten stations in North India (including Srinagar, Jammu, Lucknow, Chandigarh among others).
Nair is not the only ex-Jet personnel to ask this question. Ever since the story of Jet’s imminent revival has floated, many in the aviation sector—both in the airlines and former and present ministry of civil aviation (MoCA) officials—remain unconvinced that this revival will ever see the light of day, even though many would be happy to see their once “beloved” logo back in the skies.
But a majority of those in the aviation sector including top-level CEOs, CCOs—both of Jet and rival airlines—top former Jet management and commanders, and even senior government officials do not buy this and have never been convinced that there was a serious revival effort afoot. Top secretary-level phone calls have been made to airline chiefs asking “who this is and what’s going on” almost since the story began to gather momentum. “If those who oversee giving the clearances to the new combine are clueless, it’s almost impossible for anyone to take the revival seriously,” says a former MoCA secretary.
Besides those who are ostensibly involved in the revival effort—including Ashish Chhawchharia (resolution professional for Jet Airways) and Murari Lal Jalan and the Kalrock consortium—there does remain a small subset of industry sources who maintained that the airline would fly again. To quote one, CAPA India head and CEO Kapil Kaul said that he expects “Jet to restart operations sometime in early 2022”, closer to April.
A bit like an ocean tide, the Jet revival story ebbs and surges in the media. For the last few months—ever since the news of a new airline Akasa to be launched hit the headlines—Murari Lal Jalan and the Kalrock Capital consortium appear to have lost favour. Unlike some months ago, when the revival of Jet was suggested as “imminent”—once Akasa surfaced—it no longer appears to be the flavour of the season. Many reports highlight all the reasons why it might not take off as they were earlier proclaiming. But of late, reports of revival have resurfaced, and it is now argued that the airline will take to the skies by early 2022, leaving the industry further mystified.
One of the former CEOs said that a minimum of $200 million would be needed to revive, Jet as per his estimation. “There’s no guarantee on slots or traffic rights and the new owners inherit a lot of baggage”, he argues. He expects a “huge reluctance from leasing companies” to lease aircraft to “an entity where they have previously lost money in a market as troubled as India”. One former CFO of the airline—when asked by this writer on what he makes of this Jet revival—answered in two letters “BS” (bullshit), refusing to be drawn into any further discussion on the matter. A former commander, Sam Thomas, said that the revival in 2022 looks "impossible" and that PNB had done the right thing by asking to quash the NCLAT order.
Why then is the Ministry of Civil Aviation not debunking the Jet revival when it too knows “only too well” that there is no value left to revive. “The airline only has liabilities as far as I know, so I am unable to understand precisely what this revival means. Why would anyone be so keen to revive; if they have money to burn, they could just start a new airline as Jhunjhunwala and Co are doing”, argues a former Jet CFO.
Industry sources suspect that the revival theory has been floated by market movers who may have some interest in selling or getting rid of the stock of the airline and reducing the losses as the airline’s share became almost junk post the shutdown. “These rumours are floated from time to time to bolster the share price and allow some players to recoup some of their losses. It’s nothing more than market manipulation”, says a former CFO of Jet. He says that some investors will be left richer and some poorer but that’s all that will happen as a result of these rumours.
Some argue that MoCA has been less than upfront on this, and it should have asked the right questions at the right time. For instance, "what exactly is left to revive". They argue that this is where the regulatory role of DGCA and MoCA ought to kick in, instead of allowing false hope to thrive and let many believe that there is a serious revival afloat. Or if there is a serious move to revive, that too should be made clearer by those in charge, argue industry analysts. “DGCA and MoCA often obfuscate the situation further instead of providing transparency”, says a former MoCA secretary—who speaks from a position of authority, since he has been there before.
It is argued that to revive something it needs to have some assets left to monetise. “Even the Jet brand would be a liability if you fly out of India as many litigations have been filed against it”, says an industry observer. According to sources, even if Jet Airways domestic liabilities can be wished away or dealt with through the NCLT process, the airline has many liabilities overseas. Towards the end, Jet was barely managing to settle any of its debts and dues added up at various airports where it was flying in and out of. A top management and finance head of the airline says that the amounts owed outside the country could well be in the range of ₹15,000 crore for the airline. “So, if any aeroplane bearing the Jet logo was to land at any of these facilities, it risks being seized”, he adds. As soon as anyone feels that there is some money coming in, they will stake their claim on it.
Moreover, Jet has barely seven aircraft left currently which can at best be sold “for the price of the metal”, according to its former engineering department sources. The aeroplanes have been both “cannibalised” and have not been serviced for the longest time. No value can be ascribed to these planes. There are no real estate assets to be sold or monetised either.
As far as slots go, there is almost no chance of recovery of any slots. This has been clarified by government sources to those concerned. Moreover, the players who filled the slots are quite determined to not give up these—as they too have made investments to get these off the ground post the shutdown when the government was worried about capacity constraints. Chances of those in possession of the slots getting their way are higher as they wield more power.
Employees of the airline who are still hoping to get some dues are also primarily those who have failed to find other jobs. “The best talent has already been picked up by the rivals and other similar industries”, says a senior Jet staffer. While the airline’s CEO Vinay Dube moved to Go and now Akasa, other senior management like CFO Amit Agarwal (now group CFO at Raymond) and many other senior managers like Raj Sivakumar (moved overseas with global business process management company WNS), Rahul Taneja (now with Essar Capital) and others have exited aviation and found jobs in other sectors. Even several senior commanders and cabin crew joined IndiGo, AirAsia India, SpiceJet and some Middle East carriers as Jet’s closure happened pre-pandemic, while many others moved into hospitality and tourism.
Industry sources say that there is some logic in an Akasa taking to the skies in an environment where most players are struggling, and they would start with a clean slate. “The new entrant can try and get aircraft cheaper. It can eventually get some slots, frequencies,” an industry source. But the Jet story they firmly believe was over and out a while ago.