NEW DELHI: Debt-ravaged Jet Airways India Ltd., the country’s biggest so-called full-service airline, is selling a majority stake for one rupee – a little more than one US cent.
It’s part of a bailout plan by its state-owned lenders that will give the airline time to arrange fresh equity. The complicated arrangement is on track to be voted through on Feb. 21, in what would represent the rescue of one of the country’s most visible companies at a sensitive time, with India’s general election just weeks away.
It’s consistently been one of India’s top three airlines in the past decade. Jet Airways was founded by ticketing agent-turned-entrepreneur Naresh Goyal after India ended a state monopoly on aviation in the early 1990s.
It’s now 24 per cent owned by Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways PJSC and controls 13.9 per cent of India’s market, one of the fastest-growing in the world. Jet Airways also flies to international destinations including London and Singapore.
As a slew of budget carriers started flooding the market in the mid-2000s, offering no-frills, yet on-time flights, Jet Airways began dropping fares, some to below cost. On top of that, provincial taxes of as much as 30 per cent on jet fuel added to its expenses, while price-conscious Indian travellers refused to pay a premium for on-board meals and entertainment.
Unlike budget operators, full-service airlines such as Jet Airways offer such amenities mostly for free. Jet Airways lost money in all but two of the past 11 years and has 72.99 billion rupees ($1 billion) of net debt.
A group of lenders led by State Bank of India has proposed taking a 50.1 percent stake for 1 rupee through the issuance of 114 million new shares, a maneuver that’s allowed under a framework outlined by the Reserve Bank of India last year.
The structure, however, is expected to be temporary, allowing the airline to raise equity from investors, which in in turn would alter the shareholding pattern. Jet Airways, which requires some 85 billion rupees to get back on its feet, now needs to bridge that gap through fresh equity infusion, debt restructuring and asset disposals, such as selling aircraft and leasing them back.
While the bank deal is nominally a conversion of debt into shares, debt levels will come down only by 1 rupee once the exercise is completed.
Jet Airways management has given scant detail, but said lenders will also participate in an equity issuance round beyond the already allotted 114 million shares. Jet Airways has held talks with Etihad and Indian conglomerate Tata Group, while Goyal has offered to pump in as much as 7 billion rupees, if he retains his 25 percent stake. Etihad may invest about 14 billion rupees and retain a stake below 25 percent, while India’s National Investment and Infrastructure Fund may bring in as much 13 billion rupees.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces an election within months, and the collapse of an airline – with 23,000 jobs at stake – would put a dent in his business-friendly image and fuel criticism that he’s failed to deliver on promises about creating jobs.
The airline business in India is notoriously difficult, with cutthroat competition pushing base fares to as low as 2 cents. Kingfisher Airlines, founded by beer tycoon Vijay Mallya, ended operations in 2012 after failing to clear its dues to banks, staff, lessors and airports. SpiceJet Ltd. almost collapsed two years later before its founders returned to gain control and revive the company. State-run Air India Ltd. is surviving on bailouts worth billions of dollars. Apart from Etihad, Singapore Airlines Ltd. and AirAsia Bhd. have also set up local ventures, but they are all loss-making. There’s one exception: IndiGo, operated by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd., has managed to consistently make money with a tight lid on costs and lucrative maintenance and engineering contracts negotiated as part of large aircraft orders.