By December of 2014, SpiceJet Ltd, then controlled by media baron Kalanithi Maran’s Sun Group, was debt-ridden and on the verge of closure. The glide path to bankruptcy had become apparent. One morning, state-owned oil companies refused to refuel their planes. The airline had started gradually grounding planes. Hundreds of flights were cancelled and salaries of employees delayed.
This is when Ajay Singh resurfaced, just in the nick of time for the airline. He had co-founded Spicejet in 2005. Those were the heady days of Indian aviation that saw a sudden spurt in low-cost carriers. IndiGo, Go Air, Kingfisher Airlines and SpiceJet all started services in 2005.
In 2010, Singh exited the company and the Marans of Sun Group acquired control in 2010. In January 2015, with the airline teetering on the brink, he bought back the company, ignoring advice from friends. The airline could be turned around, he believed. “There was still great potential in aviation, and oil prices were coming down,” Singh, now the chairman and managing director of SpiceJet, told this writer in 2018. “I thought nobody would blame us if the airline died but if it succeeded, we would have stories to tell our grandchildren.”
Singh executed an astute strategy aided by declining oil prices that led to several quarters of profits. For a while it seemed like he had managed to steady the ship. But now, after two waves of the covid-19 pandemic that has battered the aviation sector around the world, and oil prices soaring, it’s testing times yet again for SpiceJet.