Jet Airways: The riches to rags story of India's oldest private airline

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For many, Jet Airways redefined the Indian flying experience

For a long period of time, especially during the late 1990s and 2000s, Jet Airways was the shining face of Indian aviation. But now it finds itself on the verge of collapse. What went wrong? The BBC’s India business correspondent Sameer Hashmi explains.

Jet Airways won itself many loyal customers when it started operations because it redefined the Indian flying experience. It set itself apart in a market dominated by the national carrier, Air India, by offering world class service.

Over the last decade it grew steadily – becoming India’s largest international carrier. But the airline, which celebrated its silver jubilee just last year, is now fighting for its survival.

In recent weeks it has cancelled thousands of flights, affecting passengers flying on both international and domestic routes.

It has grounded more than two-thirds of the 119 aircraft it had in its fleet because it is no longer able to pay leasing companies. The company has amassed a debt of more than than $1bn (£750m) and has failed to pay salaries and loans.

Rescue efforts

But for now at least, all is not lost.

In a rare move the Indian government is desperately trying to save Jet, despite the fact that it is a private airline. So it is asking state-run banks to step in with a bailout plan.

With elections scheduled to start next month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to stop the airline – which employs 23,000 people – from collapsing.

The “rescue mission” is headed by the State Bank of India (SBI), the country’s largest public sector bank. Its head, Rajnish Kumar, on Thursday said that lenders are close to working out a resolution plan.

But not everyone is convinced it can be saved.

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The airline has cancelled thousands of flights in recent weeks

Air India’s former executive director, Jitender Bhargava, says it will be very difficult for banks to find investors – given the current financial mess the airline is in.

“Who will be ready to put in money when profitability is not on the horizon? You cannot put in money to sink it.”

SBI has already held talks with Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which owns a 24% stake in Jet. The lenders want Etihad Airways to invest more money in the airline but the latter is reported to have declined the offer and instead wants to sell its entire stake and exit the business.

But aviation expert Mahantesh Sabarad thinks that Jet Airways is still a strategically good investment for Etihad. By increasing its stake, he believes, the gulf carrier will get a bigger foothold in an aviation market that is forecast to become the third largest by 2024 behind the United States and China.

“If immediate cash is injected and the aircraft that are grounded start flying again, then the airline can be rescued. In the current scenario, Etihad is the best bet for Jet Airways,” he said.

The Goyal problem

But the major factor that has held back potential investors, including Etihad Airways, is the founder and chairman of the airline.

Naresh Goyal has been reluctant to give up control of the company.

According to multiple reports, Etihad Airways initially agreed to invest more money and raise its equity stake in the airline. But the deal collapsed after Mr Goyal refused to step down as the chairman of the airline. He and his family own a 52% stake in Jet Airways. Indian aviation rules allow foreign airlines to own a stake of up to 49% in Indian carriers.

“Mr Goyal has always wanted to keep control of the airline at any cost. Even in the past when the airline was going through tough times, he turned down deals to protect his position,” says a former senior executive of Jet Airways who didn’t want to be named.

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Founder and chairman Naresh Goyal has been reluctant to give up control of the company

Many news reports say lenders have asked Mr Goyal and his wife to step down from the board.

“Mr Goyal stepping down will open up a lot of options for the airline. Any investor that is willing to invest would want full control and to run it professionally,” says Mr Bhargava.

An email sent to Jet Airways regarding Mr Goyal’s future did not elicit any response.

Turbulence from low cost carriers

Jet Airways was born in 1993, two years after India liberalised its economy and opened its doors to private investments.

The company was one of five private airlines to set up soon after. The others did not survive but Jet Airways kept cruising to new heights. It kept increasing its market share, eating into the monopoly enjoyed by national carrier Air India.

In fact, the rise of Jet coincided with the decline of Air India, which was plagued by poor service and bad business decisions taken by its political masters.

Its troubles however, began with the entry of low-cost carriers like IndiGo and SpiceJet in the mid-2000s.

The new airlines began offering tickets at a much lower prices. IndiGo also kept its operational costs low by offering basic services and no food on flights. To compete with them, Jet also started lowering its fares, despite continuing to be a full service airline.

“The biggest challenge for Jet Airways was that its operational cost was much higher compared to low-cost carriers, which is what prevented it from making profits,” says Mr Bhargava.

Apart from stiff competition, volatile crude oil prices and a depreciating rupee also exacerbated its financial problems. Since 2008, the airline kept incurring huge losses , forcing it to keep borrowing from banks.

Meanwhile, IndiGo kept eating into Jet Airways market share.

Things turned from bad to worse in 2018. Crude oil prices shot up significantly, touching $80 and simultaneously, the Indian currency lost nearly 20% of its value against the dollar. Both factors play a critical role in the airline business.

“These two factors really dented the airlines’ cash flow, and it couldn’t recover from there,” says Mr Sabarad.

Borrowed time

Jet Airways used to operate on 600 domestic and 380 international routes.

But since the crisis began, it has cut down hundreds of flights including to international destinations like Abu Dhabi, Manchester and Hong Kong.

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The airline has cut off many domestic and international routes which will affect thousands

It has also curtailed its operations within the country by stopping flights from the capital Delhi to major Indian cities like Bangalore, Chennai (formerly known as Madras) and Hyderabad.

According to some media reports, the government has nudged low cost carriers like SpiceJet to consider taking over some of the aircraft grounded by Jet Airways.

To make matters worse, the airline’s pilots union has said they have decided to stop flying from 1 April if Jet Airways does not have a rescue plan in place by then.

“It is not about the salary right now, it is about getting clarity about our future. We have bills to pay, and many of us are sole breadwinners in the family,” Asim Valiani, vice president of the union, told the BBC.

Airfares have soared with passengers sometimes having to pay four to five times the cost of a regular ticket.

It is still unclear what the outcome of the Jet Airways fiasco will be. But for now, airline staff and customers are bearing the brunt.


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