Air India to fund $70 billion plane order with cash, equity amid overseas push

FILE PHOTO: A bird flies over a logo of Air India airlines at the corporate headquarters in Mumbai

By Aditi Shah and Tanvi Mehta

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Air India said on Monday it plans to fund its $70 billion order for a record 470 aircraft with internal cash, equity and through sale-and-leasebacks, as the airline seeks to rapidly expand its presence in international markets.

Tata Group-owned Air India said on Feb. 14 it would buy 220 planes from Boeing and 250 from Airbus in a deal that has eclipsed previous records for an order made by a single carrier.

"So the principal driver (for the plane order) was really recognizing the opportunity for Indian aviation and putting in place the investment in the capacity of the aircraft in order to realize that for India's benefit," Air India Chief Executive Officer Campbell Wilson said on Monday.

"We see significant opportunity in long-haul international," he said, adding that a new order for 70 widebody planes combined with its exiting fleet and other leased aircraft means "a many-fold increase in Air India's widebody long-haul fleet, and therefore, capacity."

Air India, once considered a world-class airline in India, saw its image tarnish in the mid-2000s due to financial troubles, an ageing fleet and poor service.

The airline's renaissance under the Tata conglomerate, which took control of the previously government-owned carrier last year, aims to capitalise on India's growing base of fliers and large diaspora across the world.

There is untapped opportunity in direct flights to North America, Wilson said, adding that Air India will also increase the frequency of flights to European destinations, including to places such as Frankfurt, Paris and the United Kingdom.

The airline is spending $400 million on refurbishing and upgrading its planes, especially on long-haul routes as it looks to compete with bigger rivals such as Emirates.

Air India is inducting 500 cabin crew each month, Wilson said. The airline said last week that it will hire more than 4,200 cabin crew and 900 pilots.

(Reporting by Aditi Shah and Tanvi Mehta; Editing by Savio D'Souza and Sherry Jacob-Phillips)