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NEW DELHI: A foreign player has expressed interest in acquiring 49% of soon-to-be-privatised Air India. Aviation secretary R N Choubey said this company has given an “unsolicited expression of interest for AI’s airline arm.”
While the identity of this player is not being revealed at the moment, Singapore Airlines (SIA) is among the foreign airlines that have shown interest in AI’s disinvestment process. Qatar Airways is the other big airline that wants to start a domestic airline in India and has for long wanted to pick up a stake in IndiGo. Incidentally, IndiGo has given a formal expression of interest for AI’s airline arm, especially the international operations of AI and AI Express.
“As of now it will not be possible to say who this foreign player is and whether it is a foreign airline or some other company. We need to check with them if they are okay with their identity being revealed at this stage,” said a senior ministry official.
It is likely that the foreign player is an airline as the government had earlier this month allowed foreign airlines to invest up to 49% in Air India, paving the way for Indian players to tie up with foreign airlines to bid for it. “Foreign airlines are allowed to invest up to 49% under government approval route in AI as well. Substantial ownership and control (SOEC) of AI shall continue to be vested with Indian National. Foreign investment(s) in AI, including that of foreign airlines, shall not exceed 49% either directly or indirectly,” the government had said in a statement on January 10.
This decision had removed the confusion caused by a consolidated foreign direct investment (FDI) policy released last August which had said that while foreign carriers can own up to 49% stake in Indian carriers, this was “not applicable” to AI. The SOEC clause means that foreign airlines have up to 49% stake in a JV Indian carrier with the Indian partner having at least 51% stake in it. This model is followed by both the Tata JV airlines where Singapore Airlines and AirAsia Berhad have 49% stake in Vistara and AirAsia India, respectively.
The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) says that an airline’s SOEC should be with the nationals of a country if such an airline wishes to fly out of that country. The issue of SOEC being with Indians arises at two times — issuing license and later giving bilateral rights that India has – to its airline for flying abroad.
Vistara CEO Leslie Thng has already said the airline’s promoters have an open mind (to bid) for AI if it made business sense.