The Indian airlines industry exhibited explosive growth in the period from 2003 to 2007. Thousands of passengers started flying for the first time, drawn by new airlines offering bargain flights around the country. However, the industry was hard hit by the economic crisis in 2007-08. Passenger growth, which was touching 40% at the onset of 2007, went into reverse. Soaring fuel prices in 2008 pushed up ticket prices, which further reduced demand.
The three major players in the aviation sector in India – Jet Airways (India) Ltd, Kingfisher Airlines Ltd and National Aviation Co. of India Ltd (NACIL)—which collectively control 65% of domestic passenger traffic, were the worst affected. The three airlines currently have a combined debt of $13.5 billion (Rs63,315 crore). State-owned NACIL runs Air India. Other than the exogenous factors, poor managerial decisions including predatory pricing by the larger players and underutilization of capacity were prime contributors to the huge debt.
Factors Leading to the Debt
Kingfisher Airlines is labouring under a debt burden of Rs 7,413-crore (as on December 2009). Out of this, Rs 2,099 crore is short-term debt; the remaining amount being long-term debt. Subsequent to its launch in 2005, the first year and a half went quite smoothly for the airline. A lot of Jet passengers shifted allegiance and joined Kingfisher and the company registered rising profits. However, it spent money like water on onboard service and brand building; neglecting costs altogether. Things began to go downhill soon after the airlines a stake in Air Deccan in June, 2007. Not having a CEO further exacerbated the airline’s problems.
2008 proved to be the final straw in its operations, and as oil prices hit new highs, so did the merged entity’s problems. By end March 2009, the airline’s debts had touched over a billion dollars. Senior executives were also at loggerheads with oil companies, vendors and the Airports Authority of India.
Jet Airways is slightly better off than its rival. Although it has a debt of Rs. 14000 crore; short term debts constitute only a small portion of that amount. In 2009, Jet’s domestic revenues were 37% higher and profitability was superior to Kingfisher due to a higher share of full-service carrier operations, while the higher proportion of low-cost operations in Kingfisher’s operations dragged it down.
Furthermore, aircraft ownership is a key difference between the two airline companies. Jet owns 39 aircraft against 21 owned by Kingfisher Airlines. Difference in fleet ownership is reflected in Jet’s higher debt levels. As per Jet’s management, 85-90% of the debt is towards purchase of aircraft at long term interest rates of 5-7%.
In an effort to minimize losses, Jet entered into sale-and-lease-back of its aircraft, or the ability to sell off the aircraft it purchased and continued using them for a rental fee.
State-run Air India, which enjoyed a monopoly in the country till the deregulation of the aviation sector in 1991, is besieged by a debt of Rs. 40000 crore. One of the major factors for this colossal figure is over employment of labour. The airline has a workforce of 31,000; which translates into 230 employees per aircraft. According to international standards, the number should be 100-150 employees for every aircraft.
Another major reason for the spiralling debt are the massive aircraft orders placed by the beleaguered firm with aircraft makers — 68 with Boeing and 43 with Airbus. The orders were placed when the country was beginning to witness an aviation boom, but the figures were overestimated even according to the heydays. The orders cannot be cancelled now; since cancellation entails a hefty penalty, which the airline is ill situated to bear. Poor capacity utilization is another major issue for the national carrier, with over 40% of seats going unoccupied in 2009.
Braving the Storm
In June this year, SBI had approached RBI with a proposal to restructure more than Rs2000 crore of Kingfisher’s debt. RBI declined to clear that proposal as it was not comfortable with the idea of giving any special concessions to any particular aviation company. In an 18 June meeting with bank executives, the central bank noted it would be a moral hazard for RBI to give any regulatory forbearance for any specific company. It was made clear that any regulatory consideration of banks’ requests regarding restructuring guidelines could only be for the aviation sector—and not for any airlines in isolation—in view of the difficulties faced; and provided the banks came together in a consortium arrangement and took a long-term and holistic view on the restructuring.
This prompted the bank to put forward the case of the entire airline industry rather than that of a particular firm, which was approved by the RBI in September. The proposal asks for conversion of the short-term loans into long-term ones and then extending the repayment schedule to nine years, with a one to two-year moratorium. SBI’s investment banking arm, SBI Capital Markets Ltd (SBICaps) is working on the debt recast plan, leading a consortium of 13 banks.
The most significant beneficiary of the recast would be Kingfisher Airlines, and will get a much needed respite from the payment demands of various lenders including oil companies and airports. With the restructuring, more time would become available for repayment of loans and its operations would not be encumbered by the cash crunch. Other options like raising money overseas or diluting equity to raise cash could also be explored. In the fiscal ended March, the airline also reduced its losses to almost half of those posted in the previous fiscal. This improved performance was achieved through better seat occupancy and cost reductions.
While the airlines are talking about cost-cuts and route rationalizations to turn things around, Jet Airways posted a profit in the current fiscal year through a number of innovative strategies. These include improving aircraft utilization efficiency, increasing flights on existing and new routes without adding new aircraft, reducing the weight of flights to scale back fuel expenses, and launching a second low-cost carrier; by converting some of its full-scale flights into a no-frills all-economy service under the brand name of Jet Konnect. Jet Airways has also sought approval from the Foreign Investment Promotion Board (FIPB to raise $400 million via qualified institutional placement (QIP) to repay debt and augment capacity.
Air India’s debt of Rs. 40000 crore is a different story altogether. More than any proposed debt restructuring, measures taken by the government in terms of equity infusion and guaranteed loans would have a larger impact on the public sector carrier. However, the government has hinted that the airline should generate more funds through better passenger yields and cost-cutting, instead of expecting further bailouts.
Is the Restructuring Justified?
In the past, the government has extended support to crisis hit sectors such as real estate and steel on previous occasions, and there is no reason not to provide the same to the domestic airlines. However, the debt recast should come with certain riders. A major cause for the heavy losses was the overcapacity inducted by the airlines and the undercutting that followed.
They should commit to keeping costs under leash and run their operations with maximum efficiency. The debt restructuring also makes sense from the banks’ point of view. Big players like SBI have an exposure of over Rs. 3500 crore to the industry. RBI’s move would help provide relief to banks as they would not have to classify airline-sector loans as non-performing assets (NPAs), giving them an opportunity to contain the growth of NPAs, while airlines would get some breathing space to repay their loans and would not be compelled to raise costly debt to continue operations.