Changing hands one more time, SpiceJet has earned a place in Indian corporate history. Though the story is still being scripted, the first few chapters could well prompt best-selling business fiction. In the 21 years since it flew in its first avatar, ModiLuft, four sets of promoters have brought in fresh capital and new ideas- each trying and make a success of it.
The biggest of the bets was taken in June 2010, when Kalanithi Maran, chairman and managing director of the Sun Group, paid Rs 750 crore to buy a 38 percent stake in SpiceJet from American private equity investor Wilbur Ross and the UK-based Kansagra family. Over the last few years, he invested another Rs 800 crore, increasing his share in the company to 53 percent.
There is a sense of déjà vu about Ajay Singh, leading the revival this time around. Using his network in the financial world, Singh was able to bring in successive rounds of funding between 2002 and 2010 (when Maran came in). During these years, half a dozen FIIs and FIs, including IL&FS and the Tatas, bought into and exited SpiceJet. Significant among these was Wilbur Ross, who is famous as a ‘vulture investor’, specialising in funding distressed assets. Ross bought out Ajay Singh and, partly, the Kansagras, and exited at a profit in 2010.
SpiceJet’s unravelling is possibly the unkindest cut for Maran. When he bought into it, India was already littered with examples of airlines that were either dead or dying (Kingfisher had begun drowning in debt; Air Deccan, MDLR and Paramount had faltered too). Members of the staff who were present in the office just after his company Kal Airways, that part of the Sun Group that manages the airline business, took over in 2010, say he was brimming with confidence. In one informal address, he said the days of instability were over and this was the last time the airline was changing hands. “Maran had drunk the kool-aid,” says a New York-based aircraft lessor, who has done business with the billionaire. And Maran believed he could make it work.
Not the one to waffle, he made swift changes. Within a few months, he ordered 15 smaller aircraft, Bombardier Q400, worth $450 million to service smaller cities. The aircraft flew higher and faster than the French-made ATRs that rivals like Jet Airways and Kingfisher Airlines had been using. Maran also ensured that the planes were delivered within one year. SpiceJet’s fleet zoomed from 22 planes to 51 in one year. The number of flights grew by 111 percent in that period (between October 2011 and December 2012) and the market share improved. By December 2012, SpiceJet controlled about 18.5 percent of the domestic skies. Maran also brought in a new CEO, Neil Mills, to run it in the classic LCC (low-cost carrier) mode.
Devil is in the detail
Over the last decade, India’s airline industry has gained disrepute in the global aviation community for being weighed down by chronic oversupply and high costs. “The problems are fundamental and not cyclical,” say HSBC analysts Rajani Khetan and Mark Webb in a report titled ‘Indian Aviation—Don’t Expect a Reversal of Misfortunes’. Costs are high relative to pricing power, the report says, and the deterioration is likely to continue with two new players, AirAsia India and Tata-SIA.
Maran tried to buck the trend. To be fair, for a brief while, his magic seemed to be working. After 10 years of losses, the airline made profits in 2010 and 2011 just as he settled into the new business. But deep within, things were not okay. Insiders say the management had little understanding of the airline business. “SpiceJet was being run on a cash-basis. Accrued expenses were not taken into account, and provisions were not made,” says a consultant who has worked closely with the airline.
Short-sighted steps were taken while negotiating contracts, especially for the maintenance of aircraft and engines. “Engine contracts had high number of exclusions, and this cost the airline an arm and a leg when there was a snag,” says a senior company source. Smart airlines the world over ensure iron-clad maintenance and power-by-the-hour parts and support contracts for engines. Even if they are a little more expensive, these contracts put the onus of maintenance on the manufacturers (CFM International for SpiceJet’s Boeing 737s and Pratt & Whitney for the Q400s) to make certain that the engine is serviceable.
SpiceJet got hit with huge maintenance bills, often paying 30 to 40 percent more. The Q400s were being sent to Samco Aircraft Maintenance, an MRO (maintenance, repair and overhaul) service provider in The Netherlands, for major checks, and at a very high cost. This was later changed; maintenance is now being carried out in India.
The other issue was the low utilisation of the new planes. The idea behind adding so much capacity, and so fast, was to be able to fly the Q400s for at least 11 hours a day and improve cash inflows. But ground realities—turnaround times at airports were higher than expected, permissions took time—were different.
By the end of 2013, both the revenue and cost sides of the airline’s operations were completely off-kilter.
“When revenues are not in line with costs, the only thing to do is to slow down and take stock,” says Dinesh Keskar, Boeing’s senior vice president of sales for Asia-Pacific and India. “Running an airline based on forward cash-flows is not the smartest thing to do,” he says, referring to the bargain-fare sales that the airline was becoming famous for.