Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Qatar Airways 'reached out' to Tatas to jointly bid for Air India 4 years ago

New Delhi: Qatar Airways (QA) had reached out to Tatas four years back to jointly bid for Air India when the government had made its first attempt to sell off the Maharaja.

“About four years back, we did show interest to partner with Mr Ratan Tata (for jointly bidding for AI). At that time he was not interested because they were already partner with Vistara (Singapore Airlines) and AirAsia. He at that time did not think of investing in AI. If Tata would have agreed to partner with us, we would have bid for AI that time. The (Tata’s bidding for AI last year) change of mind happened recently,” Qatar Airways Group chief executive Akbar Al Baker told TOI from Doha on Tuesday.

The 2018 divestment process saw no one expressing interest. In the second attempt last year, the Tatas, using their 84%-owned AirAsia India platform, have emerged as the frontrunners to get AI.

But cash-rich QA has not given up on the “huge aviation market” that is India. It is ready to partner with Rahul Bhatia’s IndiGo when it decides to go long haul.

“Rahul Bhatia has been operating a very successful company. They are best run, very efficient and the largest Indian carrier. I am sure that sooner or later Mr Bhatia will decide that he would like to go long haul. We are always ready to partner with an individual who has the same mindset as us at his business (like Bhatia),” Baker, who holds a private pilot license, said.

During the pandemic QA received SOS for funding from some cash-starved Indian carriers (not IndiGo) which it turned down. “We did were approached by Indian carriers through bankers to be partners (stake sale, funding) during the pandemic. IndiGo didn’t approach us because they don’t need to they as they are a very efficiently run organisation.”

“All Indian carriers today must be under lot of stress. The entire aviation industry around the world, including us, are under financial stress as the (passenger) volumes we need to efficiently run our business is not there. Fortunately Qatar Airways being the largest cargo carrier in the world, we have been able to run the organisation to some kind of normalcy. Otherwise it would have been very difficult.”

Covid has fuelled demand for direct travel between India and rest of the world. Will it affect Gulf and airlines with hubs in other nearby regions in a post-pandemic world? “Indian market is so large that even if you exercise all the traffic rights that you have ad you have given to others that you will not be able to satisfy the demand. The demand is so huge from India. India is growing to be a very large aviation market,” Al Baker said.

A return to the House of Tatas is widely seen as a possible way for AI to regain its lost glory. Asked if he sees Tata-owned AI as serious competition, Al Baker said, “I am sure it will be.”

“I wish Mr Ratan Tata all the best. He is a good friend. I really congratulate him for trying to buy the household silver that once upon a time was nationalised. AI was launched and belonged to Tatas once upon a time. Those were its golden days,” said Al Baker, who did his schooling from India and flew AI in its heydays frequently.

04/05/21 Saurabh Sinha/Times of India

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