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Jet Airways will fly again if SBI is serious about getting a bidder, say pilots; hint at conspiracy to keep airline grounded

Jet Airways will once again soar to the skies, said its pilots even as the cash-strapped airline is waiting for a bidder. After flying for 25 years, Jet announced grounding of its fleet after its lenders declined interim funding of Rs 400 crore.

Jet Airways owes over Rs 8,400 crore to banks. The SBI-led lenders' consortium of Jet Airways is trying to recover their dues through the sale of the airline. SBI Caps, the merchant banking arm of SBI, is currently shortlisting the investors.

The shortlisted bidders - Etihad Airways, TPG Capital, Indigo Partners and National Investment and Infrastructure Fund (NIIF) - have to submit their final bids by 10 May, according to a report in The Economic Times.

Speaking to Firstpost, Jet Airways pilots revealed why they continue to nurture hope and refuse to look for a job elsewhere even as their future with the airline is uncertain. What stood out prominently in the conversation was the pilots’ sense of pride in working for Jet Airways. “It is India’s best airline that even people living abroad chose over other foreign airlines while flying to India. We still are the best,” they said.

 Jet Airways will fly again if SBI is serious about getting a bidder, say pilots; hint at conspiracy to keep airline grounded

Representational image. PTI

Few pilots (most of them wanted to remain anonymous) shared their views and angst about their jobs and the future of the airline. Captain Vikram (name changed) joined the airline 24 years ago after working for Vayudoot and said that he is nearing retirement. “I want to sign off my career by flying Jet Airways,” he said. “I was one of the first few commanders of the Boeing 737. I have had fantastic growth in my career here. From being a trainee pilot for the 737, to becoming an examiner on 737, opportunities on Airbus 340s, and then Airbus 330, to holding management positions—career growth opportunities have been plenty,” said Vikram, with pride in his voice.

Echoing Captain Vikram, Captain Sarvesh K Gupta, said that when he joined the airline, it had 7 aircraft. Flying for Jet Airways was Gupta’s first job and he wants to stick around as long as Jet Airways has a chance to become airborne again citing its ‘professionalism’ a reason why airline crew and its guests too are shocked by the turn of events.

“We had impeccable training, our safety records are the best, our services to our guests – from booking a ticket, exiting our aircraft, we offer the best services and there is a comfort level for the guests. You can send your child unaccompanied and be ensure that he/she will be taken care of even if the aircraft had an exigency,” he said.

Jet Airways has been grappling with financial woes that resulted in the full-service carrier delaying payment of salaries to staff, including pilots. The airline posted a loss of Rs 1,261 crore in the three months ended September. The Naresh Goyal-controlled private carrier has been reporting losses since the last three successive quarters.

Since Jet Airways suspended all operations on 17 April, after its lenders rejected its plea for emergency funding, it has lost all its aircraft, and also some of its slots to other rival airlines. With operations halted, as many as 440 slots of the airline are lying vacant at Delhi and Mumbai airports which will be allocated to other airlines in a transparent manner, a senior official said last week.

Naresh Goyal did his best, say employees

The airline has had a few takers like Tatas, for instance, which in November last year made a bid to buy a controlling stake in Jet Airways, but wanted the exit of the airline's then existing promoters, the Naresh Goyal family.

Goyal stepped down from the board of Jet Airways on 25 March. Shares of Jet Airways jumped over 15 percent after media report claiming Goyal had agreed to reduce his stake. Etihad Airways, the Abu Dhabi-based strategic partner of Jet has 24 percent pre-dilution stake while Goyal has a 20 percent stake. Jet has an accumulated loss of about Rs 920 crore.

The airline’s future might have been different if Goyal had exited early, say analysts. Captain Karan Chopra of National Aviator's Guild (NAG), “We would be looking at a different Jet Airways now if Goyal had exited early. Our value would not have depleted.” Chopra is a Boeing 777 commander with 19 years of experience as a pilot, and also heads the NAG, the union representing pilots of Jet Airways.

Captain Karan Chopra. Pic courtesy Karan Chopra

Captain Karan Chopra. Pic courtesy Karan Chopra

However, Chopra felt it was too simplistic a solution to believe Goyal would throw in the towel without putting up a fight. He reasoned, “it is not right to expect Goyal to easily give up his share in the airline he founded. When the airline was doing well for 24 years, the Goyal business model was hailed as one of the best, but when the airline was facing financial difficulties, the same model was blamed for the loss. This is akin to blaming Virat Kohli for India losing a match,” said Chopra.

Conspiracy theory

Chopra points out three reasons as to why he felt the airline started its descent less than a year ago till it hit the ground and had to suspend operations in April 2019. The Air Sahara deal, struck in January 2007 for $500 million that got Jet Airways Sahara's international routes and some aircraft, was a bad deal which Goyal realised soon.

“From the time we started declaring losses, the airline’s future was slowly on a descent. The balance sheet did not reflect operational profits but non-operational profits. Operational profit was hit with high fuel costs, dollar rates, ticket fares because of intense competition from low-cost airlines. Even if we offered low-cost tickets, our overhead as a full-service airline was 25 percent to 30 percent higher than other airlines,” he said.

Another issue was the airline management overlooked its manpower increase. “The number of staff we had was unnecessary. It is a mix of mismanagement and leakages we could not plug,” said Chopra.

Some pilots hinted at a conspiracy to bring the airline down. From operating over 120 aircraft a month ago to none now, it seems a bit too much to believe that this is coincidental to lack of finances, said a pilot. “There is much more here than merits the eye. SBI said it would lend money if Naresh Goyal stepped down and then when the latter did, the bank-led consortium changed its mind. SpiceJet was given funds by the government when it ceased operations in December 2014. Why can’t the same be done with Jet Airways,” asked a pilot.

Captain Sarvesh K Gupta. Pic courtesy: Sarvesh K Gupta

Captain Sarvesh K Gupta. Pic courtesy: Sarvesh K Gupta

Another issue was of management slip-ups. Captain Gupta said, “internally we have not had the best management. If operations and training are not taken care of well, any airline can bleed to death. Our cost control measures were not good, but there is a smell of foul play with the way things are panning out. It needs to be investigated,” he said.

Senior BJP leader Subramanian Swamy in a letter to the civil aviation minister Suresh Prabhu said Jet Airways should be merged with Air India not only to ensure that air services are not restricted but also to enable Air India to recover its former premier position, the Mint reported.

Chopra sent a letter on behalf of NAG to the prime minister last week. In the letter, he urged the Prime Minister to intervene in the matter and order a probe to establish whether a larger conspiracy was at play, or of any collusion between SBI and Etihad, as the only one decimated here, has been the employees and Jet Airways at large.”

Chopra pointed out that with Naresh Goyal no longer in the helm and SBI not willing to give funds, the airline employees have no choice but to go to the government to ask for funds. “We are not expecting SBI to run the airline but we would be flying now if they had come to our aid. Now, we have lost the airline, slots and pilots too. But a large majority of us are still here as we are hopeful that there will be a buyer for the airline,” he said.

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Updated Date: Apr 29, 2019 15:36:21 IST