05 Oct 2017 13:57 IST

Our track record of debt is pretty good: Jet Airways CEO

Focus will be to bring down operating costs, reduce debt further, says Vinay Dube

An Indian-American Vinay Dube has worked with marquee aviation companies such as Delta Airlines, Sabre Inc and American Airlines before taking up the job of the Chief Executive Officer of Jet Airways a couple of months ago. In an interview with BusinessLine, Dube shares the airline’s future plans and his views on the industry. Excerpts:

A few years ago, Jet Airways had made Brussels its European hub. But it gave it up after some time. Now the airline has made Amsterdam as its European hub. So, how is the foray into Europe panning out for Jet given the fact that the airline seems to be more focussed on international routes.

We now fly to Paris, London, and Amsterdam and we have some strong partners there. To me, it is a good formula for stability and success. The ratio between international and domestic routes is 55: 45. The quality of our domestic flights is second to none. If you want to compare it with our competition, I am not going to accept any angle or element of inferiority whatsoever. Having said that, the ratio between international and domestic operations could change. One of the wonders of the aviation industry is that the assets are mobile. So, we are not wedded to any formula at all.

During the first quarter, there has been an increase of over 50 per cent in other income. Isn’t that a bit worrisome for you as half of your income comes not from operations but from other activities?

I don’t think we want to have a financial focus that is linked to either reduction or increase in other income. Perhaps the more pertinent point is our focus related to increased operating income. Because the other income is the other income. Time to time there will be special items (other income) that will come in at the appropriate time and go at the appropriate time. Our focus is to run an airline through our operating cash.

Then there is the issue of high operating cost and one of the main reasons is high fuel costs. With the increase in ATF prices, it might become more difficult to tackle it.

It is simple and it is to attack every element of the operating cost. Whether it is fuel costs, being able to fly more efficiently, increasing labour productivity, or focus on consumption of every single element we have. We are going to be extremely vigilant and focused on that. As far as ATF prices are concerned, it is one of the elements. But it is the same for every airline. If fuel prices go up, it does affect our bottomline. If costs of goods go up, you will be able to recover some of that in terms of the revenue side and we will try and do that. We would want to reduce the cost of borrowing as well. I personally don’t lose sleep over fuel because we don’t control it. Fuel will do what fuel does. There is very little an airline CEO can do to influence the cost of fuel that is an input to us. But there are lots we can do to influence other elements of the cost and that’s what I lose sleep over.

How different or same are the developed aviation markets across the world?

There are nuances which play out from one part of the world to the other. At a base level, it is not different from aviation here from what I have seen during the 60 days I have been here. There are some parts of the world where aviation had a head start. India will learn how to live in a regulated, deregulated industry. It is the same world over.

At some point in time will the KLM-Air France strategic alliance lead to an equity partnership?

My view is that everybody should be open to it under the right circumstances and I will say the same for us. Under the right circumstances, why wouldn’t anyone be open to picking up stake? But we haven't even got to that equation. So, you are getting a generalised response.

How do you plan to reduce the huge debt that is sitting on your P & L?

My view is that the reduction of debt can be done by throwing off cash from operations and thereby bring down debt. Or, strategically borrow with lower interest rates. But borrowing is a question of interest rate. The bigger one is to throw off cash and that's what we have been doing. Our debt has come down by close to a $1 billion in the last 12 months. If you look at our track record of debt, it is pretty good. My view is we want to continue down that path. Regarding raising funds, it is an option but not the only option. Without throwing off cash from operations and restructure the debt, anything else seems temporary.

What is the status of expat pilots in the airline?

We have to constantly look at every element of our operational efficiencies which is exactly our core piece of our strategy. When it comes to flight operations, there is a big element of safety involved. But we have to continue to focus on driving efficiencies and reduce costs with expat pilots being an element of it.

But we are dogmatic about we have to do this and in what time frame. We have to run safe, reliable operations and you have to balance that with costs.

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