Friday, October 08, 2021

Air India back in founder Tata fold after 68 years

New Delhi: The prodigal son has returned.

The government on Friday announced Tata Group as the winning bidder for Air India, clearing the way for the cash-strapped Maharaja going back to the founder exactly 68 years after India had nationalised its private airlines in 1953.

Tata wholly owned subsidiary Talace Pvt Ltd put an enterprise value (EV) bid at Rs 18,000 crore with debt to be retained at Rs 15,300 crore and cash component of Rs 2,700 crore.

This was higher than the Ajay Singh-led consortia's enterprise value (EV) bid at Rs 15,100 crore with debt to be retained at Rs 12,835 crore and cash component of Rs 2,265 crore.

The salt-to-satellite conglomerate will now take over Air India (the merged AI-Indian Airlines entity), AI Express and AI’s 50% state in ground handling firm AI-SATS, before the end of this fiscal. The Tatas bid, in the government’s third time lucky attempt to sell AI, was higher than than a consortia comprising of SpiceJet promoter Ajay Singh.

Tatas are now going to consolidate their airlines business as they now have two budget airlines — AI Express and AirAsia India — and as many full service ones — AI and Vistara.

Three airlines are likely to be integrated first and Vistara’s 49% stake holder, Singapore Airlines (SIA), will decide on its next step — whether to merge in the AI fold or remain a separate airline — in coming months.

This biggest ever consolidation in Indian airline industry means an end to uncertainty over AI survival as the government had made it clear it will have to shut down the Maharaja — that has a accumulated debt-cum-losses of about Rs 1 lakh are and loses an additional Rs 20-25 crore daily — in case no one bought it.

JRD Tata had prophetically advised PM Nehru in 1952 against nationalising airlines as he was “sincerely convinced the nationalisation scheme (was) not sound and will not result in the creation of an efficient and self-supporting air transport system…”

For passengers, the return of the prodigal son means AI’s nonstops across the globe will continue and they can hope the degraded onboard experience to improve with time.

Struggling to survive for years, the government-owned AI was not able to spend on cabin upgrade for a long time.

Tatas will get AI’s intangible assets like 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots at Indian airports; and 900 slots at airports abroad. AI had a total debt of Rs 60,074 crore as on March 31, 2019. The new owner will need to take on debt of Rs 23,286.5 crore.

08/10/21 Saurabh Sinha/Times of India

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