Jet Airways seeks loan moratorium

Airline grounds about a dozen planes as part of a review of its network, mulls laying off more employees

By BLOOMBERG

MUMBAI • Jet Airways India Ltd has approached banks for a moratorium on loans and asked for fresh funds to ease a cash crunch, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter, adding to signs the carrier is sliding deeper into trouble.

The airline has already grounded about a dozen planes as part of a review of its network aimed at reducing unprofitable domestic routes, said one of the people, who asked not to be identified because the plans aren’t public.

The Mumbai-based carrier is also studying laying off more employees in non-core areas, the person said.

The moves show India’s biggest full-service carrier — unprofitable in nine of the past 11 years — is struggling for survival as two-cent (8.3 sen) fares in one of the world’s most expensive places to buy jet fuel negate the gains from a surge in domestic passenger numbers.

Indian banks, having suffered setbacks from lending previously to failed Kingfisher Airlines, had earlier rebuffed Jet Airways with their reluctance to extend additional loans to the company.

A representative for Jet Airways couldn’t comment immediately.

Shares of the company jumped as much as 4% to 220 rupees (RM12.44) yesterday in Mumbai on optimism any successful arrangement with lenders could help the carrier get its finances back in order.

Jet Airways has the highest portion of short-term debt to total debt compared to its Asian peers at 46%.

For Naresh Goyal-led Jet Airways, it’s critical to raise funds as the airline is battling a depreciating local currency, intense local competition from budget carriers and surging fuel prices. The banks have asked for a detailed action plan from Jet Airways on proposals to sell shares, the people said.

The carrier was one of the first to take off in the early 1990s after India opened up aviation to non-state carriers.

Jet Airways has shared little details of a turnaround plan it announced in August, while its stock has plunged 75% this year, shrinking the market value of the company to about US$325 million.

Among the proposed steps it announced were the sale of the carrier’s stake in its frequent flier programme, capital infusion, paring of debt and cutting costs by as much as 20 billion rupees over the next two years.

While Blackstone Group LP and TPG Capital were reportedly in talks for the stake in the loyalty programme, Jet- Privilege, the carrier hasn’t given any indication it is anywhere close to a deal.

Jet Airways owns 49.9% of JetPrivilege, with the rest held by Etihad Airways PJSC, which separately owns 24% of the Indian carrier.

The Times of India reported last week that the Tata Group held preliminary talks to buy a “large” stake in Jet Airways, seeking management control. The carrier said the report was “highly speculative”.

Tata already operates two airlines in India in partnership with Singapore Airlines Ltd and AirAsia Group Bhd.

Cash and equivalents at Jet Airways dwindled to 3.2 billion rupees as of March, from as high as 20.8 billion rupees three years earlier, signalling the urgency to raise capital and tide over any squeeze.

Net debt was at 73.6 billion rupees as of June 30, 65% of that denominated in dollars, CFO Amit Agarwal said in August. The local currency’s 13% slide against the greenback is making matters worse by threatening to drive up plane financing costs.

As Jet Airways strives to get its financial position in order, budget carrier and rival IndiGo, operated by Inter- Globe Aviation Ltd, is likely to gain market share, according to Bloomberg Intelligence analysts Rahul Kapoor and Chris Muckensturm.

Jet Airways has 124 aircraft in its fleet, according to its website, compared to IndiGo’s 159 as of end-March.