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Flying High?

The recent relaxation of restrictions on investment norms in the aviation sector has revived the interest of the Tatas in this business. Remember, Tatas pioneered civil aviation and operated Air-India before it was nationalised in the early 1950s? JRD Tata continued as chairman after the nationalisation. When the policy was liberalised in the early 1990s permitting competition, Tatas joined hands with Singapore Airlines and bade for re-entry. After a few years battling for permission, they gave up in despair. Remember, the 1990s had a procession of civil aviation ministers who had short tenures and most of them outright incompetent?

Even while large corporates were hesitant to enter the fray, small players with little experience or resources like NEPC Airlines rushed in. Of course, they crashed out in quick time.

The last decade witnessed the entry of budget airlines which helped a surge in first time air travellers. SpiceJet, GoAir and Deccan Airways expanded rapidly and offered tickets at affordable prices. This experiment coincided with the boom years of 2003-08 when economic growth zoomed. Praful Patel, as Minister of Civil Aviation in UPA I, also focused on the modernisation of airports. The bold initiative to invite private players to enter the fray resulted in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Delhi and Mumbai airports emerging as modern airports with state-of-the-art facilities in double quick time.

The 2008 crisis slowed down the economy and civil aviation suffered as a consequence. The crash of Paramount Airways and Kingfisher and the large losses suffered by others afflicted the sector. Airfares shot up and air travellers were reluctant to fly.

The decision to permit FDI of 49 per cent by foreign airlines has revived interest in this space. Jet Airways utilised this by entering into collaboration with Etihad Airways of United Arab Emirates (UAE). Air Asia, a Malaysia-based budget airline, entered into a joint venture agreement with the Tatas and Telestra Tradeplace Pvt Ltd to set up a budget airline that will initially focus on the southern region.

The present proposal of Tatas involves a 49 per cent stake for SIA with Tatas holding the majority share. A Tata group veteran Prasad Menon, who retired after serving Tata Chemicals and Tata Power, is the chairman-nominee for the proposed joint venture (TCS’ s Ramadorai is the chairman for the budget airline).

After China, India is emerging strong in the market for civil aviation. The number of air passengers, presently in the region of 150 million, is expected to triple over the next seven years. SIA, with its large fleet, has earned a reputation for efficiency and growth. The large Indian domestic market will help this joint venture to tap a good share of in-bound and out-bound travellers apart from the huge domestic market.

Several other large airlines from Europe like Lufthansa evinced interest in such joint ventures but could not proceed ahead due to lack of stable and attractive long-term policies. With the present lacklustre growth of the European economy, one can expect the huge potential offered for growth by the Indian market attracting its large airlines as well.

Will the industry fly high or crash low? The jury is still out on this.

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