An Air India aircraft. Photo: AFP
Many of Air India's aircraft have been sitting idle because of Covid-19 flight restrictions. Photo: AFP

As India’s government makes another attempt to sell off loss-making airline Air India, it has imposed a hiring freeze and moratorium on employee promotions.

The state-owned carrier has debt of more than 500 billion rupees (US$7.25 billion) and the government is expected to start the disinvestment process soon and complete it within five months, the Press Trust of India reports.

The airline’s books of accounts until July 15 have been closed and those financials would be used while seeking bids, the news agency added, quoting airline officials.

Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri told Parliament on July 3 that the government was committed to the disinvestment of Air India and the plan was to make it more operationally viable before the sale of a stake.

He had said the airline was now making daily revenue of 150 million rupees. “Our plan is to revive Air India, make it more operationally viable and then disinvest it. So far as Air India is concerned, the government is committed to its privatization. Let there be no ambiguity on that,” the minister said in the upper house of the Parliament.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in her budget speech that the government would reinitiate the disinvestment of Air India and also offer more state-owned enterprises for strategic participation by the private sector.

Recently Home Minister Amit Shah was made the head of a reconstituted group of ministers on Air India disinvestment, replacing Road Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari, who was dropped from the panel. Apart from Shah, there are three more ministers on the panel – Nirmala Sitharaman, Commerce and Railway Minister Piyush Goyal and Hardeep Singh Puri.

The panel, named Air India Specific Alternative Mechanism (AISAM), was first constituted in June 2017. It will also make a call on whether the government should completely exit the loss-making Air India during the sell-off process.

Apart from Air India, the Indian government is also keen to sell its low-cost arm – Air India Express – and the 50% stake it holds in Air India SATS, the airline’s baggage handling and airport services unit. The remaining 50% is held by Singapore Airport Terminal Services.

Last year the government’s efforts to sell a 76% stake in the national carrier failed to take off. It had also offered to transfer the management control to private players. However, Air India’s proposal failed to elicit any initial bids and the deadline ended on May 31, 2018.

Then transaction adviser Ernst&Young stated in its report that the disinvestment failed to take off because the government wanted to retain a 24% stake and high debt.

Also read: Government to draw up new plan to sell Air India: minister

For any potential buyer, the 87-year-old airline offers a mixed bag. On one hand, it has legacy issues of a debt burden and about 10,000 permanent employees. On the other, it offers some prime slots in various airports, especially in overseas destinations.

Founded in 1932 as Tata Airlines and run by salt-to-software conglomerate Tata Group, it was nationalized by the Indian government in 1952. Tata Group now owns stakes in two airline joint-ventures – Vistara, with Singapore Airlines, and Air Asia India, with Air Asia Bhd.

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