New Delhi: Saddled by a monumental debt burden of nearly Rs 58,000 crore, an early sale seems to be the only bailout option left for the creaking Air India, currently facing a non-remedial snag, threatening to ground the national carrier any time after October.
Aviation circles in New Delhi are abuzz with a sale plan being finalised as early as November and not later than December. And this firmed up further with Union Home Minister Amit Shah replacing Union Transport and Highways Minister Nitin Gadkari to head the Group of Ministers on the sale of Air India.
Shah, a master political strategist and someone believing in “fast-track” decision after arriving at the pros-and-cons, must have already worked out the arithmetic, as he does in state and general elections, for the erstwhile Maharaja before it crashes to ground.
Interestingly, the man at the helm of affairs, who would see through the inevitable sale process—Chairman and Managing Director Ashwani Lohani, is learnt to have supported the “early sale” of Air India. Lohani, who, earlier as ITDC chairman, had stood against the disinvestment in ITDC-run hotels under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led BJP government, as he always believed in infusing new personnel strength in PSUs and inspiring the available HR to spring back, is in no mood to drag on with cash-strapped Air India.
But that is also not stopping Lohani from launching new sectors as he did in Dubai last week and launching Delhi-Toronto. He also has long-term plans for reaching Nairobi and Bali too.
Having said this, the silver lining stays with the national carrier—whoever buys Air India stands to get a good deal.
With nearly 42-43 international sectors and about 170 flights in possession, of which nearly 30% have been bought in the last three years, Air India operates on the most profitable sector. Had the debt burden not mounted year after year due to the internal mismanagement over the years, it would have been the best in the world. And this comes from one of the best pilots in cockpits; nearly 1,800 pilots are with Air India, who take off and land down with perfect ease and the slightest jerk. The cabin crew has often been slammed for “inhospitable and outdated presence”. But truly speaking, that has much to do with the in-house condition. It’s something like a family running without a matching monthly salary to cover the household expenses and some family members demanding a party too often. The near-4,000 cabin crew, of whom a lot have the experience of foreign flights, got into the habit of operating only at the bare minimal “smile and facilities for passengers”.
And were they left with any choice either with internal cuts on services and entertainment on international flights too?
Still, for any new buyer ready to pump finances to take Air India out of the ICU, the well trained cabin crew, pilots and its ground staff, including airport managers and technicians make a perfect deal in the end.
If one just keeps out for a minute the financial mess over decades which sent AI into this condition, it can match any international airline when it comes to business from foreign sectors, and no national carrier can match it internally also. It all comes down to debt, which had clipped its wings a long before, stopping it from “flying smooth and high”. Despite the financial stress it faces, even today it has got the best foreign sectors to the United States, Australia, Austria, Israel and Europe, including London. Most of these sectors go fully occupied and even the in three round trips I did between Delhi-New York and Delhi-Washington DC, the flights were fully occupied, including the business class. The Delhi-NYC sector is the most sought after for its direct connectivity as are DC and San Francisco.
While the new buyer cuts a good deal, the government will still have to bear thousands of crores from the total debt burden.
Going by simple arithmetic, minus the debt of Rs 58,000 crore, if the government is able to mop up the estimated sale price of Rs 28,000 crore to Rs 30,000 crore from Air India, an additional Rs 10,000-12,000 crore from the sale of Air India Express, and Rs 2,000-3,000 crore from the sale of Air Alliance respectively, the government would still be short of nearly Rs 13,000-15,000 crore out of the total debt burden.
But wisdom says, sell it sooner the better as one more month will add up nearly Rs 500 crore, with the annual interest adding up to nearly Rs 6,000 crore on the entire debt amount.