Tata Sons — the holding company of India’s largest conglomerate — on Wednesday submitted a financial bid to acquire loss-making state airline Air India. Tuhin Kanta Pandey, secretary of the department that is running the privatisation process, tweeted of financial “bids” being received but did not say how many companies were in fray.
A Tata Sons spokesperson confirmed to PTI that the group has put in a bid for the national carrier.
No-frills airline SpiceJet’s Ajay Singh was considered to be another interested party in buying out the debt-laden airline. He did not respond to messages sent seeking confirmation if he had in his individual capacity put in a bid.
The financial bids will be evaluated against an undisclosed reserve price and the bid offering the highest price above that benchmark would be accepted. The bid will be initially examined by the transaction advisor before the recommendation is sent to the Cabinet for approval.
If successful, this will mark the return of Air India to the Tata fold after 67 years.
The Tata Group founded Air India as Tata Airlines in October 1932. The government nationalised the airline in 1953.
Tatas operate a premier full-service carrier, Vistara, in partnership with Singapore Airlines. It was not immediately known if the group put in the bid on its own or through budget carrier AirAsia India.
Singapore Airlines was said to be not keen on participating in the privatisation programme as it would only add to Vistara’s and its own financial troubles.
“Financial bids for Air India disinvestment received by Transaction Adviser. Process now moves to concluding stage,” Department of Investment and Public Asset Management (DIPAM) Secretary Tuhin Kanta Pandey tweeted.
He neither identified the bidders nor said how many bids have been received.
In the past, when more than one bid was received. as was the case when the initial expressions of interest (EoIs) came in for Air India, he had tweeted of “multiple bids” coming in. The phrase ‘multiple bids’ was also used when three firms, including the Vedanta group, put in EoI for Bharat Petroleum Corp Ltd (BPCL).
The government is seeking to sell 100 per cent of its stake in the state-owned national airline, including Air India’s 100 per cent shareholding in AI Express Ltd and 50 per cent in Air India SATS Airport Services Private Ltd.
The stake sale process, which began in January 2020, faced delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In April 2021, the government asked potential bidders to put in financial bids.
Wednesday (September 15) was the last day for putting in financial bids.
Tata Group was among the multiple entities that had put in an initial expression of interest in December 2020 for buying the Maharaja.
With previous attempts since 2017 failing to get any significant interest and after receiving feedback from potential investors, the government had in October last year sweetened the EoI clause relating to the transfer of Air India’s debt to the new investor, giving bidders flexibility to decide on the quantum of humongous debt they want to absorb.
As per the Air India EoI floated by DIPAM in January 2020, of the airline’s total debt of Rs 60,074 crore as of March 31, 2019, the buyer would be required to absorb Rs 23,286.5 crore. The rest would be transferred to Air India Assets Holding Ltd (AIAHL), a special purpose vehicle.
Air India has been in losses ever since its merger with domestic operator Indian Airlines in 2007.
The airline will give the successful bidder control of 4,400 domestic and 1,800 international landing and parking slots at domestic airports, as well as 900 slots at airports overseas.
Besides, the bidder would get 100 per cent of the low-cost arm Air India Express and 50 per cent of AISATS, which provides cargo and ground handling services at major Indian airports.
“Most probably February of 2022…I think by January also, we can try,” Vaishnaw said.