This is a big fat wedding in India’s turbulent skies. One of the airline industry’s most aggressive entrepreneurs and AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes has brought the Tata Group back into the airline industry after 60 years. The India-origin Fernandes has also drawn in the family of Amit Bhatia, son-in-law of steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, pulling off a coup in the cash-strapped domestic aviation industry. Asia’s biggest low-cost carrier, the Kuala Lumpur-based AirAsia, is floating a joint venture with Tata Sons, the holding company of India’s largest conglomerate, and Telestra Tradeplace, an investment vehicle of the Bhatia family, to launch a new airline in India. AirAsia will have 49% stake, Tatas 30% and Bhatia will hold 21% in the company, which will be headquartered in Chennai. The JV hopes to start operations in the last quarter of this year under the AirAsia brand, the 48-year-old AirAsia CEO Fernandes said in a late-evening conference call with the media. AirAsia’s entry is expected to shake up India’s airline sector, which has seen airfares shoot up in recent past. The airline already flies into several south Indian cities, linking them with major Asian hubs at competitive fares.
This is the first foreign direct investment (FDI) after the government relaxed ownership rules, allowing foreign carriers to hold 49% stake in a domestic airline. “We have carefully evaluated developments in India over the last few years and strongly believe that the current environment is perfect to introduce AirAsia’s low fares,” Fernandes said. AirAsia operates multiple joint ventures in Asian markets. “We hope to have regulatory approvals in place by the fourth quarter of this year. AirAsia typically invests anywhere from $30 million to $50 million to start an airline,” he said, adding that Tata Group chairman emeritus Ratan Tata would be representing the Indian side. Fernandes shares a personal rapport with the 75-year-old Tata, a fact that triggered the deal. The JV marks the Tata Group’s return to the aviation business, something which it pioneered in the country as well as Cyrus Mistry’s first big move after becoming group chairman in December last year. The group bowed out of aviation when India nationalized Tata Airlines, which is now Air India, in 1953.
The $100 billion group that has its finger in almost every business from outsourcing to steel, luxury cars and salt has always desired to have a presence in the aviation sector. It explored returning to the sector at least twice in the past two decades, when it joined hands with Singapore Airlines, first to float a new airline, and then, to bid for Air India. But the government’s flip-flop policies and political opposition buried the group’s desires until Fernandes approached Ratan Tata with
a proposal late last year. A Tata executive said that the group’s participation in the venture is that of a financial investor and it will not be running the show. Analysts said India’s robust air travel demand was the key to draw AirAsia and other investors to the domestic aviation story. Amit Bhatia is a co-investor with Fernandes in sporting ventures, which include owning European football team Queen Park Rangers. Estimates suggest that the number of domestic air travellers will triple to 159 million by 2021. “Hugely exciting venture involving my family, Tata Sons and the coolest guy around, Tony Fernandes,” Bhatia tweeted. The parties have made an application to the Foreign Investment Promotion Board for approval, after which they require the blessings of the civil aviation ministry. They will then have to approach the airline regulator for an air operator’s permit.