The government owned airline Air India has been losing a lot of money over the years. Take a look at Table 1, which lists out the losses of the airline over the last few years.
As can be seen from Table 1, over the last seven financial years, the airline has made losses of Rs 39,535 crore. Over the years, many experts have attributed different reasons for the airline doing so badly. While we can keep debating about these reasons, what is more important is that the government stops supporting the airline now and use that money in other more important areas like education, health, agriculture etc.
|Air India Losses (in Rs crore)|
Source: Public Sector Enterprises Surveys and Loksabha Questions PDF
In 2012, the government had approved a turnaround plan for Air India. It entailed an equity support of Rs 30,231 crore from the government, over a period of ten years. Of this amount a total of Rs 26,545.21 crore had already been released by the government to Air India, as of December 2017. Given that the airline continues to lose money, it is important that the government stops investing more money in the airline.
As on September 30, 2017, the airline had a total debt of Rs 51,890 crore. Of this working capital loans amounted to Rs 33,526 crore. A reasonable question to ask here is why are the working capital loans of the airline so high? Given that the airline has been making huge losses over the years, it has needed loans to keep afloat.
The next question is why have banks lent money to an airline which has lost so much money over the years? The answer lies in the fact that lending to Air India, is like lending to the government and governments typically don’t default on the money they borrow. (At least that is what the financial markets tend to assume most of the time).
Also, in order to keep repaying working capital loans over the years, the airline has had to take on more loans. Of course, the only institution which can keep taking new loans to repay old loans, without being questioned, is the government.
To its credit, the Narendra Modi government has initiated the strategic disinvestment plans for Air India (strategic disinvestment is a government euphemism for privatisation). In May 2017, the NITI Aayog recommended the disinvestment of Air India and its subsidiaries. In June 2017, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA), gave an in-principle approval for considering strategic disinvestment of Air India and its five subsidiaries.
Further, last week the government allowed 49 per cent foreign direct investment in Air India. This means that foreign airlines can now team up local players to buy the airline. Up until now, foreign airlines were allowed to buy up to 49 per cent of a local Indian airline, but this wasn’t allowed for Air India.
There are a number of issues that still remain and need to be handled smoothly and successfully, if Air India has to be sold.
1) The airline has a debt of close to Rs 52,000 crore. No airline is going to buy Air India along with this debt. The CCEA which gave an approval to privatise the airline in June last year, also decided to constitute an “Air India Specific Alternative Mechanism (AISAM) to guide the process on Strategic Disinvestment of the same.”
As the minister of state for finance Pon Radhakrishnan told the Lok Sabha in a written answer in December 2017: “AISAM decided for creation of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for warehousing accumulated working Capital Loan not backed by any asset along with is four Subsidiaries, noncore assets, painting and artifacts and other non-operations assets of Air lndia Limited.”
This basically means that in order to sell Air India, the government is ready to take on the working capital loans of Air India.
2) If the government is ready to take on the working capital loans of Air India, amounting to Rs 33,526 crore, then the unions of Air India might have a question or two for the government. As a Business Standard report points out: “The Air India unions have represented to the government that if the government writes off the Rs 30,000 crore debt, which is the key to the financial problem, there is no justification to privatise the airline. Surely they will not take it lying down.”
It remains to be seen how does the Modi government handle the nuisance value of the trade unions.
3) Further, Air India has aircraft loans of Rs 18,364 crore. It remains to be seen whether prospective bidders for the airline would want to start their business with loans of more than Rs 18,000 crore. If they do take on this debt, the price they will be ready to pay for the airline won’t be very high. It remains to be seen if this will be acceptable to the government, which tends to treat its ownership in public sector enterprises as family jewels (By government I mean any government and not just the current one. This attitude of treating public sector enterprises as family jewels has cost the nation so much. But that is a topic for another time and another day).
One way to handle this would be to handover Air India to another airline or a company, at a nominal price, on the condition that they take over the debt. The Business Standard report quoted earlier points out: “Look at how the government in Malaysia sold the debt-ridden Air Asia to Tony Fernandes at just one ringgit, and he took over the debt. That has to be the approach because you are not going to make money for your disinvestment target through the Air India sale.” This makes tremendous sense, but given the family jewels point, I am not sure how realistic it is. Also, in this case, the government can retain some minority stake in the airline and if and when the airline starts to do well that stake can be encashed (Precisely like it did in case of Maruti).
4) Most importantly, what happens to all the employees of Air India. As per the 2015-2016, annual report of Air India, the airline had 19,285 employees (this does not include the people working for its subsidiaries). While, the airline seems have the right number of pilots and air crew, it is particularly bloated when it comes to maintenance and ticketing and sales divisions.
A December 2017 report in the Mint points out that the airline had 5,931 employees in its maintenance division and 4,221 employees in its ticketing and sales division. In comparison, Indigo, had 739 and 69 employees in these divisions, respectively.
It remains to be seen how does the government handle this. Any airline which wants to acquire Air India is not going to employ 4,221 employees in the ticketing and sales division.
That much is very clear.
So, what happens to these and other employees? “Various options are under consideration to protect the interests of the employees,” civil aviation secretary R N Choubey told PTI. Last week, minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha had told CNBC TV18, “We will make every effort to protect Air India staff.”
In an answer to a Lok Sabha question, Sinha denied any plans to offer a voluntary retirement scheme to around 15,000 employees of Air India, before the disinvestment of the airline.
Handling the employees of Air India, will be the most significant challenge for the government in the run-up to the sale. In the past, when government owned airlines have been sold in other parts of the world, the number of employees working for the airline has come down considerably, for the airline to be viable for the firm buying it.
Once we consider all these factors, the privatisation of Air India will be a real challenge for the Modi government. I sincerely hope that they are able to push it through and the money thus saved is better spent somewhere else. Also, once Air India is privatised, the chances of the government getting out of many other businesses, will go up dramatically.
The column appeared originally on Equitymaster on January 15, 2018.