Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

New Delhi — India is selling a controlling stake in its flagship carrier along with two-thirds of the loss-making airline’s roughly $7.8bn debt, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi moves ahead with the nation’s most high-profile asset sale in decades.

The government will sell 76% of Air India, according to a document uploaded on the civil aviation ministry’s website on Wednesday. The airline’s overseas budget carrier will be completely sold in the offer, while the state will sell a 50% stake in the ground handling unit separately. The administration may also ask the buyer to conduct an initial public offering (IPO).

A successful sale of Air India, which is surviving on taxpayer-funded bailouts, is seen as test case for Modi to burnish his credentials as a reformist attempting to steer the state away from running businesses and boost spending on health and education. The national carrier has five subsidiaries, a joint venture, and a combined workforce of as many as 27,000.

"Selling a 76% stake is the second-best option for the government; the best option would have been to exit completely," said Kapil Kaul, South Asia CEO at the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation (Capa). "There’s also a caveat there that the acquirer will have to list the company, which means the government is looking at exiting through an IPO route, which is fair enough and very positive."

Air India’s suitors

IndiGo, India’s biggest airline, is the only company to publicly disclose a desire to buy Air India’s airline operations — the most lucrative business that includes prime-time slots at airports from New York to Heathrow, as well as bilateral rights to start flights to most countries. Singapore Airlines and India’s Tata Group, which run a joint-venture airline named Vistara in India, said they were also open to look at the sale, but haven’t elaborated yet.

Selling a majority stake in the loss-making, 85-year-old company isn’t going to be a cakewalk. At least one attempt almost two decades ago failed amid fierce political opposition. The latest offer will include 333-billion rupees ($5.1bn) of debt that the buyer will have to take over, with the balance going to the government.

India intends to sell the remaining stake in Air India, which may include selling shares during an initial share sale. The government will not sell shares in a block, according to the document.

Air India has been unprofitable since its 2007 merger with state-owned domestic operator Indian Airlines. The company made an operating profit of about 3-billion rupees ($46m) in the year to the end of March 2017, primarily due to a slump in oil prices. It still posted a net loss of 57.7-billion rupees, junior aviation minister Jayant Sinha told lawmakers on February 8.

Indian regulations allow a foreign airline to buy as much as 49% of a local carrier, while overseas investors other than airlines can buy an entire carrier. In January, Modi tweaked rules to include Air India, which wasn’t a part of those rules until then.

Air India started as Tata Airlines in 1932 and later became state-owned. Founded by Jehangir Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, it took off flying mail between Karachi in then-undivided, British-ruled India and Bombay. Once it became commercial, the airline quickly became popular with its advertisements featuring Bollywood actresses, high-end champagne and surrealist painter Salvador Dali-designed porcelain ashtrays.

Bloomberg

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