As Jet Airways India waits for buyer, rivals muscle in

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A revival of Jet Airways India, once the nation’s biggest carrier by market value, is at risk as days roll by since its operations were completely halted.

A Jet Airways plane is parked as another moves to the runway at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International airport in Mumbai, India, February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui/File Photo

While the cash-strapped carrier awaits potential investors to pump in money, rivals are aggressively going after its most prized assets. A government desperate to limit public backlash after flight ticket prices escalated is parceling off landing and parking slots at congested airports. Lessors are also adding to the woes by allocating grounded aircraft to competitors.

“It appears to me that lenders are not very confident of getting any serious bid,” said Harsh Vardhan, chairman of New Delhi-based Starair Consulting. “You can not hold on to slots, and planes are not Jet Airways’ property. They have to find a buyer as soon as possible.”

Jet Airways, the oldest surviving private airline which broke into a monopoly of Air India Ltd., had a fleet of 124 and flew profitable routes like connecting India, the fastest growing aviation market in the world, with London and Toronto. With nearly 23,000 jobs at stake, its collapse last week couldn’t have come at a worse time for Prime Minister Narendra Modi who’s seeking a second term based on his business-friendly image.

While the arrangement to give Jet’s landing slots and aircraft to rivals is temporary, the process to swap them again is complicated and is the domain of airports. It may get more difficult once rivals start new flights and sell tickets in advance, and that could leave close to nothing for a potential new owner.

The carrier’s problems are creating an opportunity for its rivals to increase their marketshare by as much as 15 percent as possibilities of a complete shutdown or significantly truncated operations increase, Elara Capital said in a note. Budget carrier SpiceJet Ltd. could be a major beneficiary as it operates similar aircraft and may gain as much as 5 percent of the market in the year that started April, analysts Gagan Dixit and Rachael Alva said.

Jet Airways started flying in the early-1990s after India liberalized its economy, and quickly cemented its spot as a leading airline offering an alternative to Air India, while averting several downturns that forced dozens of its peers to close shop. But a boom of budget airlines in the mid 2000s, on top of rising fuel prices and a weakening rupee, kept adding to Jet Airways’ costs in the notoriously price-sensitive market.

The airline, which controlled 13.6 percent of the local market as recently as January, needs $1.2 billion (85 billion rupees) to restart operations. So far, it isn’t clear whether Jet Airways will find a buyer to fly again, or if lenders will take it to a bankruptcy court. Over the weekend, local media reported Mukesh Ambani, Asia’s richest man, and salt-to-software conglomerate Tata Group are keen to pick up a stake or purchase Jet’s assets.

Shares of Jet Airways gained as much as 13 percent to 174.95 rupees in Mumbai and were trading at 169.95 rupees as of 3:18 p.m. local time. The shares plummeted 36 percent in the previous two trading sessions, after all flights were grounded last week.

Local carriers have been quick to take advantage of the situation. SpiceJet plans to induct more than a dozen Boeing Co. 737 planes, offering flights on the routes previously operated by Jet Airways. Market leader IndiGo, operated by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd., has also added additional flights from New Delhi and Mumbai, the two busiest airports of the nation which hardly had any landing slots available when Jet Airways was operating.

Ambani, who controls Reliance Industries Ltd., may partner Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways PJSC to pick up a stake in Jet Airways, while also exploring a possible bailout of state-run Air India Ltd., the Indian Express newspaper reported over the weekend. Etihad, which already owns 24 percent of the Jet Airways, has put in an initial bid showing interest in purchasing a stake in the carrier, the newspaper said.

The Tata Group may jump into the fray if the sale process fails, and bankruptcy proceedings kick in, the Mint newspaper reported separately, citing two people it didn’t identify. The government reached out to the group, which has a majority stake in two local airlines, last year to potentially bail out the airline but it did not materialize into a deal.

A Reliance spokesman declined to comment but said the company evaluates various opportunities on an ongoing basis. A Tata group representative also declined to comment.

With lessors taking over aircraft and slots going to rivals, the value of Jet Airways has eroded, said Mark Martin, founder of Dubai-based Martin Consulting.

“The lenders should have paid some money to lessors and urged them not to take over the aircraft while the sale process is on, and should have finalized a payment plan for past dues over the next 18 months, Martin said. “But they did not, and that’s really unfortunate.”

–With assistance from Bloomberg’s P R Sanjai.

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