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India’s oldest privately owned airline is struggling to keep flying

Just a few months ago, Jet Airways was being seen as a potential suitor for debt-laden Air India.

Now, India’s oldest privately owned airline is struggling to stay in the air.

Since the beginning of this month, the company has stumbled from one piece of bad news to another.

First, there were reports of Jet Airways trimming employees’ salaries to cut costs. Then the Mumbai-based company deferred the announcement of its financial results. Now the civil aviation regulator has reportedly decided to audit it.

All this comes just months after the airline posted massive losses owing to a weak rupee and high fuel prices. Already, its shares have fallen around 58% since April, when it posted a loss of Rs1,036 crore ($162.7 million).

In a limbo

The first signs that Jet Airways had flown into rough weather emerged on Aug. 02, when The Times of India newspaper reported that the company was considering pay cuts of up to 25%. The company did not respond to Quartz’s specific queries on this plan.

“Jet Airways would like to clarify that recent media reports about the sustainability of the airline are not only factually incorrect but also malicious,” Vinay Dube, CEO of Jet Airways, said in a statement. ”We are confident that the various transformation initiatives identified and under implementation by the company will help in addressing the current issues faced by us and the industry. In fact, several transformation initiatives have already started to deliver positive results.”

While there were subsequent reports that, following opposition from pilots and engineers, Jet Airways had rolled back its plans to slash salaries, the company’s troubles were far from over.

On Aug. 09 (pdf), it indefinitely deferred the announcement of its financial results for the April-June quarter of financial year 2019. The reason it cited was that “the audit committee did not recommend the said financial results to the board for its approval, pending closure of certain matters.”

The following day, the company issued a separate notice (pdf) to the BSE stating that the term of Srinivasan Vishvanathan, chairman of its audit committee and an independent member of its board, had ended on Aug. 09 and that “he has ceased to be a director.”

This led the civil aviation regulator to step in.

On Aug. 12, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) said it will conduct a financial audit of Jet Airways. This was meant to assess its financial health and to ensure that it is not cutting corners on safety.

All this has now led lenders, who have already burnt their hands with Kingfisher Airlines in the past, to tighten the noose around Jet Airways.

More misery

The State Bank of India (SBI) has asked Jet Airways to provide enough collateral for the emergency funding that the airline had sought, The Economic Times reported on Aug. 13. The country’s biggest lender has also asked it to disclose its cash flow position towards this.

The bank has put Jet Airways under its special mention account watchlist, which includes companies and individuals identified as being under duress.

The airline may have a tough time untangling itself from these issues as the entire Indian aviation sector is in trouble right now. For instance, India’s biggest airline IndiGo saw its net profits nosedive by 97% year-on-year to Rs28 crore for the quarter ended June 30 as fuel expenses alone rose 54%.

In a report published last week, Sydney-based aviation think tank Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation had said that airlines’ profitability is unlikely to improve in the next few months given the rising costs. This pressure on balance sheets might also put their expansion plans on hold, it said.

And Jet may be the worst hit.

“For Jet Airways, the cost of operating an airline remains one of the highest in the industry versus peers,” brokerage firm ICICI Securities said in a report in May. “Given the continuous rise in crude oil prices, along with a weakening rupee, the operating environment would continue to remain challenging for the company.”

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