Committed to sell Air India within a defined period of time: Hardeep Puri

Hardeep Singh Puri
Heralded by dhol beats and an energetic troupe of bhangra dancers, India’s Minister for Civil Aviation Hardeep Singh Puri flagged off Air India's non-stop flight from Toronto to Delhi at the Pearson International Airport on Friday. The airline was resuming its service on this busy sector after a gap of seven years. Speaking to Business Standard, Puri said the Indian government was committed to completing the carrier's privatization “within a defined period of time”, and the resumption of the Toronto-Delhi flight was another step in that direction. “We want to sell Air India as a successful, expanding concern,” he said. 

In an interview, Air India's Chairman and Managing Director Ashwani Lohani, who flew into Toronto from Delhi on the first flight of the new service, added, “We're trying to flog our planes so that we fly more. The single most important parameter for any airline is how many hours do you keep the planes in the sky? We're trying to increase those hours and that adds value to the airline.” Lohani said the airline was adding a number of new flights by “bringing a couple of grounded planes back to life”.

Last year, the government failed to attract any bidders for its offer of a 76-per cent stake in the airline. 

This time, according to Puri, “100 per cent is the current thinking everywhere, as last time we went in wanting to retain 24 per cent and clearly that was not conducive to the process”. He declined to give details of the discussions among the Group of Ministers or GoM that met earlier this month to discuss the sale, but declared, “I'm absolutely sure that we will complete the privatization sooner rather than later.” Lohani said the Expression of Interest was expected to be finalized in October. 

Asked if he was concerned about the reported opposition of employee unions to privatization, Puri replied, “No, I'm not, because whenever you undertake a process of this kind you will obviously ensure those…there are issues relating to assets of the company, manpower, medical cover, so we will look after all that. If you’re determined to go through with privatization, then you will not allow yourself to be derailed by concern X or Y.” 

At Pearson on Friday, bonhomie prevailed as the flight and cabin crew greeted the minister and posed for photographs with him.

Puri said he was “appalled” that Air India's popular daily service on this busy sector had been withdrawn seven years ago, and added that he had made it a priority as soon as he got the civil aviation portfolio, to resume the flight. Indian officials noted that there are around 16 lakh people of Indian origin, as well as over 170,000 Indian students, in Canada. 

Air India is starting off with three flights a week on this route for now and hopes to bump it up to six flights a week by the end of the year, and then to daily service, depending on the traffic. 

The demand was evident from the fact that the flights are fully booked for the next couple of months leading up to the peak holiday season. 

The airline’s Deputy General Manager (Commercial) and Toronto Co-ordinator, Sandeep Roy Choudhury, said their service was competitively priced against competitors like Air Canada, Emirates and Etihad. 

“We are offering two pieces of baggage, another USP for us, and that's all the way to various destinations in India, and particularly on long haul flights, giving two pieces of baggage is a very big attraction for the passengers,” he said. The carrier is using the Boeing 777-300 long-range aircraft for the roughly 14-and-a-half-hour flight. Puri left Toronto for Delhi on the 
inaugural flight.

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