NEW DELHI: NITI Aayog has recommended that the privatisation of Air India should be done only after unbundling the airline and its real estate assets.
Air India was merged with Indian Airlines in 2007 by the erstwhile UPA government.
The NITI Aayog’s recommendation comes against the backdrop of the government considering selling loss-making Air India, which has a 14% domestic market share and around ₹50,000 crore in accumulated debt.
NITI Aayog vice-chairman Arvind Panagariya told television channel CNBC-TV18 on Thursday that he expects the government to take some action on privatising Air India in the next six months. “Something should be happening this year,” Panagariya said.
Air India has the largest domestic and long-haul fleet of 140 planes in the country and flies to nearly 41 international and 72 domestic destinations.
Apart from the planes, the airline also has vast land holdings, including nearly 32 acres in central Mumbai, besides its iconic headquarters on Marine Drive valued at more than ₹1,600 crore. It also has properties in New Delhi, London, Hong Kong, Nairobi, Japan and Mauritius.
“One firm can bid for both (domestic and international operations) because the segments are different,” added the official cited above.
The Times of India on May 31 reported that NITI Aayog has suggested the real estate assets be hived off into a separate company before offering up to 100% equity to a strategic partner.
Addressing a press conference last month, civil aviation minister Ashok Gajapathi Raju said that NITI Aayog had recently submitted its recommendations on Air India to the ministry. “NITI Aayog has made recommendations for making Air India strong and viable. All courses of action are being examined. We have not closed any option,” Raju told reporters.
A committee including civil aviation secretary RN Choubey has sent its views on Air India’s divestment to the department of investment and public asset management.
The Union cabinet is expected to take a call on the stake sale shortly. The airline has so far received ₹23,993 crore of the ₹30,231 crore equity infusion promised by the government under a financial restructuring plan introduced in 2012. It reported a loss of about ₹3,587 crore in 2015-16, compared to a loss of ₹5,859 crore in the previous year.
The Economic Survey 2017 had recommended that government should privatise Air India.
“Whilst there have been some improvements in its operating and commercial performance, the company does not yet have a viable business model or a clear long-term direction. And it remains hamstrung by massive debts,” aviation consulting firm CAPA Centre for Aviation said in its report late last month. “In such a highly competitive and challenging environment, Air India cannot continue to be funded by taxpayers to fight private capital,” it added.
Spokespersons for NITI Aayog, civil aviation ministry and finance ministry did not respond to queries on Thursday.