'Air India a first-class asset': Hardeep Singh Puri on debt-ridden national car...

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Civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri on Saturday said that national carrier Air India is a first-class asset for the country, whether leading from the front in evacuating stranded Indians from China’s Wuhan or successfully carrying out the Vande Bharat Mission.

“I have never been as hopeful and confident on Air India, divestment or disinvestment whatever you choose, as I am now. Air India is a first-class asset. Whether it is for evacuation of people from Wuhan or elsewhere, Air India has been at the heart of it,” the civil aviation minister said.

Increasing debt and mounting losses has made the national carrier’s financial position shaky with the government planning to sell its entire stake in Air India Ltd. The government had earlier this year, in January, announced the stake sale in the debt-ridden airline after an attempt to auction a majority stake almost two years ago failed to draw any bids.

“Air India and Air India Express are a great entity. They have lucrative slots and bilateral rights. The average age of the aircraft is eight years which in civil aviation terms means a young fleet,” Puri had said earlier.

Air India and Air India Express have nearly 51% share of international traffic from India and their employee cost is significantly lower than other international airlines. However, despite the government infusing aid to the tune of Rs 30,500 crore previously, the cash-strapped airline has been incurring losses.

More recently, the aviation sector has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent lockdown imposed by the Centre to curb the spread of the infectious disease. After being suspended for almost two months from the end of March, the government resumed domestic flights from May 25, but placed lower and upper limits on airfares depending upon the flight duration. These limits are likely to be in place for a period of three months, the government had announced.

The civil aviation minister said the government is planning to add more flights as part of the Vande Bharat Mission in the 3rd and 4th phase to bring back more Indian nationals possibly stranded abroad. Air India CMD Rajiv Bansal also indicated that in phase 4 of the Vande Bharat Mission from July onwards, the airline will have 650 flights. “We are tuning our schedule as per the demand,” Bansal said.

The minister on Saturday expressed hope of resuming domestic flights to full capacity by the end of 2020.

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