As aviation sector bleeds, Reliance looks at Jet Airways and Air India

Sandeep Singh, Pranav Mukul, Aanchal Magazine
Reliance is not among the parties that submitted an Expression of Interest (EoI) to the lenders for acquiring Jet Airways. (In pic: Mukesh Ambani/File)

Mukesh Ambani-promoted Reliance Industries Ltd is learnt to have evinced interest in a stake in the beleaguered Jet Airways and, simultaneously, exploring the possibility of bailing out the debt-ridden national carrier Air India, two sources close to the development told The Indian Express.

Both Jet and Air India reported losses in the last financial year and their combined market share is less than 25 per cent as on date. After flying high for almost 25 years, Jet had to temporarily suspend operations on Wednesday when lenders, led by State Bank of India, refused Rs 983 crore in emergency interim funding.

Reliance is not among the parties that submitted an Expression of Interest (EoI) to the lenders for acquiring Jet Airways. One source, who did not wish to be identified, said it may join UAE-headquartered Etihad Airways in its bid at a later date. Etihad, which currently owns 24 per cent of Jet Airways, has already submitted an Expression of Interest to the lenders.

Given the current FDI norms, Etihad can increase its holding in Jet Airways under the automatic route to 49% from 24% now. Beyond this, it would require government approval. The FDI norms in civil aviation allow NRIs to acquire 100% in airlines under the automatic route.

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When contacted, a Reliance Industries Ltd spokesperson said: "As a policy, we do not comment on media speculation and rumours. Our company evaluates various opportunities on an ongoing basis. We have made and will continue to make necessary disclosures in compliance with our obligations under Securities and Exchange Board of India (Listing Obligations and Disclosure Requirements) Regulations 2015 and our agreements with the stock exchanges."

A Jet Airways employee in New Delhi, Thursday. (Express photo/Tashi Tobgyal)

A source said that discussions relating to funding and the haircut lenders have to take are currently underway. "This is precisely the reason for the delay in resolution and the consequent grounding of Jet Airways," the source said.
Another source, who also did not wish to be named, said Reliance's interest in Air India is part of the company's overall plan. "It is a boardroom strategy and could be considered at a later stage.Discussions are slowly picking pace since the interested parties are of the view they still have time."

Read | From home loans to school fees, Jet Airways employees worry for their jobs

The government had, in March 2018, issued a preliminary information memorandum kicking off the disinvestment process in Air India. Since it did not receive any bids, a ministerial panel chaired by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley deferred the strategic plan to sell 76 per cent government holding. It later decided to sell Air India's subsidiaries and assets to reduce the national carrier's debt burden of Rs 48,781 crore as on March 31, 2017.

After flying high for almost 25 years, Jet had to temporarily suspend operations on Wednesday when lenders, led by State Bank of India, refused Rs 983 crore in emergency interim funding. (Express Photo by TashiTobgyal)

Jet Airways owed Rs 8,414 crore to lenders as on March 31, 2018. So far, SBI Caps which is overseeing the sale process on behalf of lenders has received five-six Expression of Interest (EoI) from various parties including private equity firms and foreign airlines. The last date for submitting binding bids by parties is April 30. Lenders expect to conclude the deal by May 10.

Jet Airways had a domestic market share of 11.4% in February, and Air India 12.8%. Over the last year, Jet lost substantial business due to curtailed operations. Last February, Jet had a consolidated market share of 16.8 per cent while that of Air India was 13.2 per cent.

The biggest airline carrier in the country, Indigo, currently has a market share of 43.4 per cent.