Millennium Post

'Air India will keep on running till it is privatised'

New Delhi: Weeks after the Air India chief stated that the airline's financial situation was "grossly untenable" for sustaining operations, Civil Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri clarified on Tuesday that the national carrier, which is incurring a loss of Rs 20-26 crore daily, will keep on running till it is privatised.

"Air India is running. Air India will keep on running. But Air India has to be privatised because it is incurring a daily loss of Rs 20-26 crore. This is taxpayer's money that can be more profitably spent," he told reporters here.

While disinvestment-bound Air India's net loss in 2018-19 was around Rs 8,556 crore, its current total debt is around Rs 80,000 crore.

"We made an attempt two years ago. That attempt proved to be less than successful. We have learnt from that experience. It is our endeavour now that we will be issuing an expression of interest in the coming few weeks. Hopefully, sooner than later," Puri said.

"We want an Indian entity, for strategic reasons, to be acquiring the company," the minister added.

In 2018, the government had proposed to offload 76 per cent equity share capital of the national carrier as well as transfer the management control to private players.

However, the offer failed to attract any bidder when the deadline for initial bids closed on May 31, 2018. Therefore, the Centre re-started the disinvestment process this year. In a letter to the Ministry of Civil Aviation earlier this month, Air India Chairman and Managing Director Ashwani Lohani said, "It also needs appreciation that the overall financial situation is grossly untenable and the airline may not be able to sustain physical operations in the absence of immediate government intervention and support that we have been repeatedly requesting for in the recent past."

Talking to reporters, the minister said on Tuesday that the government is not a "slave or victim of certain deadlines" when it comes to national carrier's privatisation.

"We are doing it seriously. We had a meeting yesterday for several hours. We will have a meeting of AISAM (Air India Specific Alternative Mechanism) in the coming weeks. Then, we will take the process forward," he added.

As the airline, over a period of time has accumulated a debt that "could be described as unsustainable", the minister said, the Centre has to "now do privatisation" and there are "no two views on it". The Centre plans to divest its entire stake in Air India this time so as to make it attractive for private entities.

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