NEW DELHI : Tata Sons Pvt. was selected as the winning bidder for India’s flag carrier, ending decades of attempts to privatize a money-losing and debt-laden airline, and potentially ending years of taxpayer-bailouts that’s kept the company alive.
Tata Sons, which originally launched Air India Ltd. with a namesake branding in 1932, bid ₹ 18,000 crore ($2.4 billion) as an enterprise value for Air India,
Tuhin Kanta Pandey, the top bureaucrat at Department of Investment and Public Asset Management, said at a briefing on Friday. The government aims to complete the transaction by the end of 2021.
However, the Department of Investment and Public Asset Management in a statement said that media reports indicating approval of financial bids by Government of India in the AI disinvestment case are incorrect. “Media will be informed of the Government decision as and when it is taken,” it said.
Tata Sons already run two airlines in India – Vistara, a full service carrier in partnership with Singapore Airlines, and AirAsia India, a budget airline in partnership with Malaysia AirAsia Bhd.
Reports say that the Committee of Ministers on the national carrier disinvestment headed by Home Minister Amit Shah has approved the winning bid for the national airline. The government had last week evaluated financial bids received from Tata Group and SpiceJet founder for the acquisition of Air India. The financial bids were evaluated against an undisclosed reserve price and the bid offering the highest price above that benchmark was be accepted. This marks the return of Air India to Tata fold after 67 years. The Tata Group founded Air India as Tata Airlines in October 1932. The government nationalised the airline in 1953.
The government is selling 100 per cent of its stake in the state-owned national airline, including Air India’s 100 per cent shareholding in AI Express Ltd and 50 per cent in Air India SATS Airport Services Private Ltd. The Tata group originally founded the airline in 1932 before it was taken over by the government in 1953. The government had for years been trying to sell the airline, which has racked up losses worth $9.5bn. But it recently sweetened the deal by making the terms of the debt less onerous for the buyer. It’s still unclear how much debt the Tata group will take on under the new terms. Minutes after the acquisition, Tata Sons Chairman Emeritus Ratan Tata tweeted a photograph of the firm’s former chairman JRD Tata on the tarmac with an Air India plane in the background:
The national carrier had been making losses since it merged with the state-owned domestic operator Indian Airlines in 2007 and relied on taxpayer-funded bailouts to stay operational. The government said it was making a loss of nearly 200m rupees ($2.6m) every day to run the airline. Over the years, the airline blamed high aviation fuel prices, high airport usage charges, competition from low-cost carriers, weakening of the rupee, as well as a high interest burden for its poor financial performance.
Air India “suffered for its inconsistent service standards, low aircraft utilisation, dismal on-time performance, antiquated productivity norms, lack of revenue generation skills and unsatisfactory public perception”, according to Jitender Bhargava, a former executive director of the airline. Were attempts made to sell Air India in the past? In 2001, a previous BJP-led government tried to sell 40% of the stake. A number of foreign airlines, including Lufthansa, British Airways and Singapore Airlines evinced interest, but withdrew when the government made it mandatory for them to partner with an Indian company to make a bid. In 2018, Mr Modi’s government tried to sell 76% stake and a portion of its debt, but potential buyers found the terms unattractive.
In January 2020, the government decided to sell its entire stake in Air India. “There is no choice, we either privatise or we close the airline,” Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri said. By the end of December last year, Air India received two bids – one from Tata Sons and the other from a group of its employees and a US-based investment firm, Interrups. In September, Ajay Singh, who runs the private budget airline SpiceJet, also bid for the airline in his personal capacity.
This time, the government decided to offload its entire stake in Air India, its low-cost arm Air India Express and ground holding subsidiary AISATS. Experts say restructuring Air India’s employee base of 12,000 plus people could be a challenge for the new owners.
Why does Air India remain attractive?
Apart from its fleet of over 130 aircraft, the new buyer will now have control of the airline’s 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots at domestic airports, as well as 900 slots at airports overseas. Air India also owns millions of dollars worth of prime real estate. According to the aviation ministry, its fixed assets – land, buildings, planes – in March last year were worth more than 450bn rupees ($6bn).
The airline also has more than 40,000 pieces of art and collectibles, including an ashtray designed and gifted by Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali. In return the airline had gifted Dali a baby elephant, which was flown to Spain. With India seeing passenger growth of around 20% per year and analysts saying the Indian market is vastly underserved – Air India is a good prospect for Tata Group, say experts.
The high-profile sale is a boost for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has embarked on a bold privatization plan to plug a widening budget deficit, validating his stand of the state staying away from most businesses. For Tata Sons, Air India adds a third airline brand to its stable, and gives it access to more than a hundred planes, thousands of trained pilots and crew, and lucrative landing and parking slots all around the world.
Bloomberg News reported last week that a panel of ministers accepted a proposal from bureaucrats, who recommended the conglomerate’s bid ahead of an offer from entrepreneur Ajay Singh. The consortium led by Singh, who’s also the chairman of budget carrier SpiceJet Ltd, bid ₹ 15,100 crore, Pandey said.