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Aviation Explained: Why Singapore Airlines is Investing in Tata-Owned Air India?

Singapore Airlines announced that it will be converting its 49 per cent stake in Vistara into a 20 per cent stake in the new Air India Group, with the additional USD250 million used to acquire another 5 per cent.

Aviation Explained: Why Singapore Airlines is Investing in Tata-Owned Air India?

When the Singapore Airlines Group (SIA) released its operating statistics for December 2022, it revealed that it carried almost 12 per cent more passengers compared with a month ago and four times more than a year ago. Its two carriers, SIA and Scoot, carried a total of 2.7 million passengers in December. For the entire year, it carried a total of 20.7 million passengers, a jump of 900 per cent from 2021. The airline cited the relaxation of travel restrictions in Hong Kong, Japan, and Taiwan for boosting the demand for air travel and supporting a recovery in those markets.

Though impressive, the passenger numbers are still 76 per cent of December 2019's figure of 3.54 million passengers carried. SIA's passenger load factor (PLF) in December 2022 came in at 89.7 per cent during the month -- 3.8 percentage points more compared with a month ago and 43.2 percentage points more year-on-year. The airline noted that this is the highest monthly PLF in the SIA's history, full-service carrier, SIA, and low-cost airline, Scoot posted record monthly PLFs of 89.1 per cent and 91.6 per cent respectively. PLF for December 2019 was 87.6 per cent.

However, it should be noted that PLF is a function of the number of planes an airline has in service. During this period where there's a global shortage of capacity, some airlines under utilise their planes either to keep airfares high or because they do not have enough resources to maximize the use of their fleet.

According to fleet data from ch-aviation.com, at the moment, SIA has 36 inactive aircraft between its two main airline brands. Among the aircraft sitting on the ground are 15 Boeing 777ERs, two Airbus A350s, two A380s, and two 787-8s.With increasing competition in the coming year and with China's reopening from COVID-19 lockdowns, airlines in Northeast Asia are expected to put more capacity in the air which would result in supply putting pressure on prices.

SIA is expected to do the same to contend for market share. Already in December, Scoot resumed flights to Zhengzhou, China in December 2022, while SIA restarted fortnightly passenger services from Singapore to Beijing on 30 December 2022. While the China market is still slowly recovering, SIA has been expanding its capacity in India, an important market, since the middle of last year.

SIA has already resumed flights to the following South Asian cities at frequencies matching or exceeding pre-C levels: Bengaluru, Chennai, Delhi, Dubai, Hyderabad, Kathmandu, Kochi, Kolkata, and Mumbai. To underline the strategic importance of the Indian market to SIA, it made a commitment to continue to invest in the market late last year.

On November 29, the airline announced that it will be converting its 49 per cent stake in Vistara into a 20 per cent stake in the new Air India Group, with the additional USD250 million used to acquire another 5 per cent. SIA has also agreed to inject up to another USD615 million after the merger is completed, (expected by March 2024), should the new airline group require additional funds from its shareholders to fund its restructuring and expansion. The actual amount will depend on factors including the progress of the enlarged Air India's business plan, and its access to other funding options.

The airline said in a statement, "Through this transaction, SIA will reinforce its partnership with Tata and immediately acquire a strategic stake in an entity that is four to five times larger in scale compared to Vistara. The merger would bolster SIA`s presence in India, strengthen its multi-hub strategy, and allow it to continue participating directly in a large and fast-growing aviation market."

When Tata Sons agreed to buy Air India, the acquisition was completed a year ago on January 27, Tata was expected to consolidate its airline assets which meant it was likely to merge Vistara with Air India. SIA could have stepped away from its investment in the Indian market and sold its 49 per cent stake in Vistara. However, it decided to take a minority stake in a larger airline, and here are some of the possible reasons.

First of all, the new Air India Group will be a much bigger player in the Indian aviation market. Its four airlines will have a 26 per cent market share based on domestic seat capacity and 21 per cent of international seat capacity in the current quarter, based on OAG data. India as a market and a source of travellers is of strategic importance to both SIA as well as Singapore overall.

SIA will in time be able to increase its connectivity to Indian destinations as well as serve Indian passengers on international routes using Changi Airport as a transit point. This could open up attractive destinations in other parts of Southeast Asia, Australia, New Zealand, North Asia, and the west coast of America to Indian passengers. With the massive Terminal 5 in Changi opening in the middle of the next decade, any additional passenger churn will be vital to ensure the airport expansion fulfills its promise.

India is among the top three aviation markets in the world and poised to double passenger traffic over the next 10 years supported by rising income levels and ongoing investments in its aviation infrastructure. It is projected to exceed 300 million airline passengers by 2027. However, India also remains underserved with low international seats per capita, signifying significant growth potential.

Another factor that SIA would have considered is that the CEO of the new Air India group is a trusted 25-year veteran of the company before he joined the Indian airline in the middle of last year. Campbell Wilson, a New Zealander, was previously chief executive of Scoot and rotated through various roles at SIA in countries like Japan, Canada, and Hong Kong, and was senior vice president of sales and marketing for SIA.

As quoted by Fortune, he said in a letter to employees on the one-year anniversary of the completion of Tata's takeover of Air India, "Taken together, the progress over the last 12 months has been nothing short of stunning, even if so much of what we have been working on has been behind the scenes, building platforms and capabilities so that our future ambitions can take flight. There is of course much more that needs to be done, and everyone internally and externally - is hungry for us to do it."

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