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Air India begins to polish its image in its quest for elusive buyers

Air India is trying to make itself more attractive to bidders by deploying more high-end seats & adding new flights by repairing grounded aircraft.

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New Delhi: Air India Ltd. is trying to make itself more attractive to potential bidders by deploying a greater number of high-end seats for the lucrative London market and adding new flights by repairing grounded aircraft.

The carrier started using Boeing Co. 777 jets for flights to London from New Delhi this week, replacing the smaller 787 Dreamliner that now flies three times a week to Washington DC. The 777 offers four first-class and 35 business-class seats and can return from London the same day given it’s a 10-hour flight. The Dreamliner doesn’t offer first class and has fewer seats in the business section.

Air India’s Director of Finance Vinod Hejmadi said most of the 340 seats on the London flights are being filled, compared with fewer than 260 before. The airline already operates a 777 for the Mumbai-London route.

In addition, none of Air India’s widebody aircraft are grounded any more after engineers repaired as many as nine planes, according to Meenakshi Malik, head of commercial operations. The appointment of a single agent — Travelport Worldwide Ltd. — for domestic ticket sales is also likely to save the carrier more than 5 billion rupees ($70 million) this year, Malik said in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Air India started as Tata Airlines in 1932 and flew mail between Karachi and Bombay, as Mumbai was called then. The airline later became popular commercially, serving high-end champagne and launching advertising campaigns featuring Bollywood actors. Its fortunes faded with the emergence of cutthroat low-cost carriers like IndiGo, which the state-run Air India struggled to cope with as it remained bogged down by red tape.

Air India has been unprofitable since its 2007 merger with state-owned domestic operator Indian Airlines Ltd., and is saddled with more than $8 billion in debt. Indian regulations allow a foreign airline to buy as much as 49% of a local carrier, while overseas investors other than airlines can buy an entire carrier. The government didn’t find a single buyer when it tried to sell Air India in 2018.

With suitors in mind again, Air India is trying to brush up its image, notwithstanding occasional setbacks such as reports of bedbugs on flights. It is starting flights to nine new destinations including Nairobi, Toronto and Doha, and adding frequencies on three more routes this financial year, without needing to add any new aircraft to its fleet, Malik said.

Also read: Privatising Air India only option, impossible to service its debt burden: Hardeep Singh Puri


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