Struggling India Carrier Gets Bids From Employee Group, Tatas
An Air India Ltd. aircraft prepares to land at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai, India. (Photographer: Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg)

Struggling India Carrier Gets Bids From Employee Group, Tatas

Air India Ltd. has received early bids from the Tata Group and a cohort of its own employees as the government tries to rescue its loss-making flag carrier.

Tata Sons Ltd., the holding company of the conglomerate that controls Jaguar Land Rover and part-owns Air Asia Co.’s Indian unit, has submitted an expression of interest, according to people with knowledge of the matter. A group of 219 Air India employees has also submitted a bid to purchase a majority stake.

The government has received multiple bids for Air India, Disinvestment Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey said in New Delhi on Monday, the final day for bidding. He declined to name the bidders.

Air India has been on sale since 2017 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet signed off on a plan to sell all or part of the debt-ridden carrier. The government sweetened the deal earlier this year when it extended the bid deadline to Dec. 14 from Oct. 30, saying potential suitors will be allowed to decide how much of the flag carrier’s debt they want to take on as part of the transaction. The rules before that required bidders to take over the carrier’s $3.3 billion of aircraft debt, deterring buyers.

Tata Sons has bid alone for Air India and could seek partners as the process progresses, one of the people said, asking not to be identified as the details are private. A Tata group representative declined to comment.

The employee-led group seeks to buy 51% of Air India and the remaining 49% will be held by a financial partner, according to Meenakshi Malik, who is Air India’s commercial director and has been with the airline for about 30 years. Each employee will have to contribute at least 100,000 rupees ($1,360) toward the bid, she said.

“We always believed Air India can be a profitable set up,” Malik said. “The government has removed a huge part of the debt, so we thought who better than us? We know the airline inside out, we know where the problems are. We’re not bidding to win or lose, we’re doing it because we believe we can run the airline well.”

Air India has been unprofitable since its 2007 merger with state-owned domestic operator Indian Airlines Ltd., and has relied on taxpayer money to keep flying, with the bailouts adding to the pressure on already strained government finances.

‘Regain Glory’

The airline, which began operations in 1932 as a mail carrier before winning commercial popularity, saw its fortunes fade with the emergence of cutthroat low-cost competition. The state-run carrier’s entire debt totals more than $8 billion. The government didn’t find a single bidder when it tried to sell the company before.

That said, the the airline does have some lucrative assets, including prized slots at London’s Heathrow airport, a fleet of more than 100 planes and thousands of trained pilots and crew.

Malik said a financial partner had already been found, without disclosing it’s name. Employee participation has come from “the most junior employees to the most senior board members,” she said, without elaborating.

U.S.-based Interups Inc. plans to bid with the employees, according to Interups Chairman Laxmi Prasad.

“We are giving an open offer to employees of Air India to substantially own the airline,” he said on Monday. “Our group will invest the entire monies required for the airline, with no capital requirement from employees to contribute into the acquisition effort.”

Prasad said that after the acquisition, Interups planned to split the assets into “operational and infrastructure” and raise sufficient capital so the airline can “regain its glory and fly high.”

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