The Indian government has begun scheduling investor meetings for the sale of a 100% stake in financially ailing flag carrier Air India, according to Indian media reports. The carrier, shouldering long-term debt of approximately $8.5 billion, posted an operating loss of about $638 million for fiscal year 2019, an improvement over the $747 million loss reported for the previous year.
In an effort to repair the carrier's balance sheet before the sale, proposals call for hiving off about half the carrier's overall debt through proceeds from a bond sale issued by a special purpose vehicle.
Profitable low-cost regional subsidiary Air India Express will be sold as part of the package, as will AISATS, a 50-50 joint venture between Air India and Singapore Airport Terminal Services (SATS) that provides ground, baggage and cargo handling services at a number of Indian airports.
Air India serves 94 domestic and international destinations and is the largest international carrier out of India with an 18.6% market share. More than 60 international destinations are served by Air India across four continents.
Plans are to conclude a sale by March. Unions are opposed to the privatization, fearing massive job losses. The state-owned carrier is being advised on the privatization by consultancy EY.
Efforts to sell a 76% stake in Air India in 2018 for about $1 billion failed to attract a single bid. Potential buyers expressed concern of possible interference in the carrier's operations by the government, which would have retained the remaining 24% stake. The government, however, cited high oil prices, a weaker Indian currency and rising interest rates at the time for the failure to attract investment.
An Air India delegation visited Singapore in mid-November to pitch the sale to foreign airlines, investment funds and other institutional investors, as well as high net worth individuals. Indian diversified conglomerate Tata Group and several European airlines have been tipped as suitors for Air India. Foreign investors, including foreign airlines, however, can only own up to 49% of the equity in Air India under foreign direct investment rules. Other road shows are scheduled to be held in London and Dubai prior to inviting expressions of interest for the acquisition of an Air India stake.
Air India operates a mixed fleet of Airbus narrowbody and Boeing Co (NYSE: BA) widebody aircraft, carrying cargo in the belly hold of passenger aircraft.
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