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Will Modi find a buyer for Air India?

By Anjuli Bhargava
January 11, 2020 11:56 IST
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'Industry observers are certain the next attempt will succeed even if they have to browbeat someone into buying as the government has put its might behind it,' predicts Anjuli Bhargava.

Aviation in India, during the rule of the NDA government as compared with the 10 years of the UPA rule, has lost what I call is its 'personality'.

As a reporter covering the sector, I remember then aviation minister Praful Patel (2004-2011) loomed large almost on a daily basis in the newspapers, leading the Indian media on a merry dance and handing out breaking news like it was confetti.

That is not to take away from the fact that he did make sweeping changes through his tenure.

While the jury was out -- and still is -- whether all the reforms were undertaken with national interest in mind or for other considerations, nobody can deny that he changed the face of the sector over his seven-year ministership.

But it wasn't just at the ministerial level. Even in the airlines, personalities ruled.

Reporters followed the daily high life and exploits of the 'King of Good Times', the underhand machinations of Naresh Goyal aka NG, Captain G R Gopinath aka Capt Gopi who sprung out of nowhere and expressed his intention to democratise flying and even Subrata Roy and his alleged connections.

Even the smaller personalities that came and went piqued everyone's imagination -- be it the 'only business' class Paramount Airways's M Thiagrajan or the 'only vegetarian' MDLR Airlines's Gopal Kanda.

VJM, NG, Gopi, Roy, Kanda, Thaigrajan have all since been consigned to ignominy and are in varying amounts of trouble.

To say the NDA-led government's tenure by comparison has been dull would be an understatement. It is more accurate to say that the sector has undergone a 'structural' change.

From one dominated by personalities to one dominated by well... a sense of nothingness.


So what can we really expect in 2020? There are a few things one can expect, government action or the lack of it notwithstanding.

One, the much talked about Air India sale led by Home Minister Amit Anilchandra Shah is already being taken as a foregone conclusion.

After the government had egg on its face following the first failed sell off attempt, industry observers are certain the next attempt will succeed even if they have to browbeat someone into buying as the government has put its might behind it.

If it does manage, it will be a big feather in its cap as the current condition of the national carrier is untenable and a drain on both the sector and the country.

The coming year could be a critical one for market leader IndiGo.

The airline has covered a long distance in its journey and built a fairly robust company although 2019 saw a setback with the dispute between the promoters getting ugly and public.

Experts, however, point out that the international market is a double-edged sword. The pickings can be rich; so can the dangers. How IndiGo fares on this front may well decide its future course.

There will hopefully be some concrete and definitive action taken to improve the airport infrastructure across the the country.

Navi Mumbai airport, which has been in the making since 1997, ought to be the priority and if I were the prime minister, I'd place it directly under Amit Anilchandra Shah's hawk eye to ensure action.

Airports across the country have been picked out for upliftment although the ability of groups with no proven track record (such as the Adanis, which won the bid to modernise and run six of them) in the area has come under scrutiny.

The CFO of GMR, known for his ability to ensure financial closures for such projects, joined the Adani group in March for six months and quit before anyone could blink. Why? He's not divulging as of now.

The other ambitious project -- the new airport in Jewar -- has got off to a speedy start but many are questioning the ability of the Swiss to pull it off in the UP badlands.

Their choice of local partner may well decide the fate of this project. Mind you, building an airport is only half the battle won.

How does one reach it? The two -- access and building -- need to move in tandem for it to actually work. And Mumbai's precedent on this front has been less than reassuring.

I'll end with the scheme to encourage UDAN of the desh ka aam nagrik.

The government has been auctioning routes to the same old bidders and a few flights have taken off, but the aviation sector maintains that the scheme remains a non-starter in the sense that it has failed to bring in a single new name on the horizon, former minister of state for civil aviation Jayant Sinha's good intentions and countless interviews on the topic notwithstanding.

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Anjuli Bhargava
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