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Friends no more.
BEYOND THE TURBULENCE

Despite the boardroom tussle, IndiGo may hold on to its top spot in Indian aviation

By Niharika Sharma

A high-pitched boardroom tussle is unravelling at India’s largest airline, IndiGo.

Investors have been spooked by concerns that the company’s management is losing focus and rivals may dent the airline’s market share, which stood at 49% in May. While IndiGo’s formidable lead in the market and fleet size may help it fend off competition, some slowdown is a given, say experts.

“This has the makings of a situation that can spin out of control. It’s to be seen now whether the airline will continue to grow and expand at a pace it has been growing in the past or not—as funding will be a challenge,” said Amit Tandon, co-founder and managing director of Mumbai-based Institutional Investor Advisory Services.

The feud between IndiGo’s promoters Rakesh Gangwal and Rahul Bhatia became public on July 9.  Gangwal had levelled serious charges of a lapse in governance.  He said IndiGo had entered into various related-party transactions (RPT) with the IGE Group, an “affiliate” of Bhatia, without seeking audit committee approvals or competitive bids and sought intervention (pdf) from the market watchdog, securities and exchange board of India (Sebi).

“If Sebi and other regulatory agencies start an investigation then this will be a distraction for the management and will slow down the airline’s growth,” said Tandon

Given Gangwal’s role in the airline, the issues may create an environment of insecurity. “IndiGo has grown because of what Gangwal brought to the table. His backing helped the airline procure 100 aircraft from Airbus (in 2014). He holds a strong influence in the airline,” Harsh Vardhan, chairman of the Delhi-based aviation consultancy firm, Starair Consulting, told Quartz. “The lessors, third-party suppliers, and other stakeholders involved with IndiGo may rethink their ties to the carrier.”

The timing of the tussle, too, is a mater of concern. The airline, known for adding a new aircraft every week, had a total of 262 aircraft in its fleet, as of March 2019. “When the airline is expanding fleet size and being aggressive on its strategy, the controversy can act as a hindrance,” said Ashish Nainan, analyst at ratings agency CARE.

Good news for rivals?

Does this mean competitors can make the most of IndiGo’s internal problems?

On its part, the airline is downplaying the fears. Chief executive officer Ronojoy Dutta in a letter yesterday (July 11) said the issues will be sorted out and have nothing to do with the running of the airline.

The IGE Group said yesterday (July 11) that RPTs accounted for just 0.53% of the company’s turnover and they were “executed on an arms-length basis and in “the ordinary course of business.”

Despite some hiccups that might come in the way, aviation experts, too, don’t see rivals catching up easily. “The current situation will disturb the market share of IndiGo but rivals still have a long way to go to dethrone it from the top position. Airlines like SpiceJet and Vistara are growing but IndiGo has been a sustainable player in the market,” said Vardhan.

No-frills carrier SpiceJet is India’s second largest airline, which had a 14% domestic market share in May, compared with Vistara’s 4.7%.

The issues between the promoters are a boardroom matter and not about running the airline, argued Mark Martin, founder of aviation advisory firm Martin Consulting. “If two board members are fighting, that cannot downgrade the airline’s business. It’s an internal matter and will eventually be solved by its board. In the meantime, IndiGo will continue with its planned investment and business strategies to grow in the market,” Martin said.