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Kingfisher lawsuit against IAE shows Vijay Mallya’s desperation

by Vinay Bhaskara and Devesh Agarwal

Earlier this month, defunct Indian carrier Kingfisher Airlines, which has been grounded since 20th October, 2012 when the Indian regulator, the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) suspended its flying license, filed its annual report for fiscal year 2012-2013.

Instead of focusing on finding a way to pay off the nearly Rs. 7,000 Crore debt the airline owes to a consortium of lenders led by the State Bank of India, Kingfisher used the annual report as a mouthpiece to announce a lawsuit filed in the City Civil Court at Bangalore against engine manufacturer International Aero Engines (IAE) for $235 million (damages of $210.4 million plus $24.6 million in punitive damages), claiming that the IAE V-2500 A5 engines used to power Kingfisher’s once 32-strong fleet of Airbus A320 family aircraft were “inherently defective, both in design and manufacture.” The Kingfisher annual report says.

United Breweries (Holdings) Limited has filed a suit in the City Civil Court at Bangalore against International Aero Engines AG, its shareholders / joint venture partners and your Company being O.S. No. 6406 of 2012, alleging that the IAE V-2500 A5 engines supplied to your Company were inherently defective, both in design and manufacture, and has claimed damages of USD 210,400,000 plus Rs. 1,621,000,000 (aggregating to approximately $24.557 million as per the current exchange rate of approx Rs. 66  per US Dollar) and has reserved liability to claim further damages. No relief is sought against your Company in the said suit.

This lawsuit smacks of desperation on the part of Kingfisher and its management, as the carrier continues to flounder.

Considering that it did not operate for most of the year, if Kingfisher still managed to find enough cash to pay CEO Sanjay Aggarwal US $591,000 in an annual salary, clearly demonstrates a carefully managed business strategy will allow the airline to slowly pay off debt without resorting to doomed strategies such as this lawsuit.

Kingfisher restart would be a strategic mistake

Kingfisher also continues to pursue the flawed idea that the carrier should “restart” operations with up to 20 aircraft, or that the carrier will make back the money by selling itself to an investor. This is a mistake. Re-launching operations in today’s Indian airline industry would be a tragic mistake. For starters, the Indian macroeconomic picture is very poor; the Indian Rupee has continued to decline and growth projections for the fiscal year have slipped beneath 5%. This has driven demand for Kingfisher’s premium style product lower than when Kingfisher shut down, and that too up against a somewhat re-vitalized Air India, a re-capitalized Jet Airways, a market leading IndiGo, and a soon to arrive behemoth AirAsia India. 

Moreover, India’s other airlines have committed to firm orders of at least 93 current generation narrow body aircraft, as well as 272 next-generation re-engined products (which doesn’t even include an expected re-engined order from low cost carrier (LCC) SpiceJet. This doesn’t even include the fleet of well-capitalized startup AirAsia India, who we project to grow to a fleet of between 10 and 12 Airbus A320s, and regional startup Air Costa, who is supposedly on the verge of launching operations within the next two months. And all of these orders and startups have locked Indian carriers into domestic capacity growth, even with the persistent demand weakness. LCCs have been flooding major Metro markets with capacity (see IndiGo driving out Jet Airways with a massive capacity dump in the Bhubaneswar market as just one prime example).
Even at the peak of the Indian market, Kingfisher as an airline was not profitable and the one part of their network which was profitable, the regional ATR network in the South, has been co-opted by LCC SpiceJet using a fleet of Bombardier Dash 8 Q400 turboprops. SpiceJet already has 15 Q400s in its fleet, and is working to secure financing to grow the fleet by another 15 frames. For example, one of Kingfisher’s most profitable routes pre-shutdown was the trunk route between Bangalore and the industrial Karnataka city of Hubli, but Hubli is now a SpiceJet monopoly with service to five destinations using the Q400s. And Air Costa is due to start operations, muddying up the waters with even more capacity.

One cannot blame Kingfisher’s investors for the idea that if only Kingfisher were to be re-started and/or sold, they will make back their money over time. This sort of playbook is present all over the global airline industry, most notably with US LCC Virgin America whose investors have continued to swallow persistent losses over the past six years in hopes of making their money back via an initial public offering. This would be a mistake in the Indian market, where the existing carriers are already struggling. SpiceJet, Jet Airways, and Air India have all hiked their fares by more than 25% in recent days to offset the rise in the Rupee, with GoAir and IndiGo expected to follow suit soon. Kingfisher re-launching into this environment would just be a recipe for racking up thousands of crores more, in further accumulated losses.

It is better to leave Kingfisher’s aircraft rotting on tarmacs across the country where they could at least serve as a reminder to Dr. Mallya, how he, and his incompetent mis-managers, drove a great airline concept in to tatters.

About Vinay Bhaskara

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