Air India Ltd. is polling pilots on whether they want to be trained to fly Airbus SE A350 jets, indicating that it intends to operate the model as it looks to renew its widebody fleet under new owner Tata Group.
The airline may introduce the A350 by the first quarter of 2023, according to a letter sent to senior cockpit crew and seen by Bloomberg News. Pilots must respond to the offer by June 20, and those who accept will be ineligible for training on another aircraft type for two years, the letter said.
Air India is looking to order around 20 A350s, people familiar with the matter said. One option would be to take on jets initially destined for Russian carrier Aeroflot that Airbus can no longer deliver due to sanctions, as well as Qatar Airways planes that the airline isn't taking due to a dispute with the manufacturer over paint quality.
A deal would be a coup for Airbus in India, the world's fastest-growing aviation market prior to the pandemic, as the European planemaker doesn't have a single customer there for its widebody jets. Two of its previous buyers in the country went bankrupt, while another was sold, handing a lead to Boeing Co., which has delivered 777, 787 and 747 jets to local carriers, including Air India.
Airbus has had more success selling smaller jets in India. IndiGo, operated by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd., is the world's largest customer for the manufacturer's best-selling narrowbodies, ordering more than 700, and others including Vistara, Go Airlines India Ltd. and AirAsia India Ltd. fly planes from the same family.
Boeing has an active order for 737 Max jets with SpiceJet Ltd., although the budget carrier hasn't taken any new deliveries since a ban on the model following two deadly crashes was lifted last year. Boeing is also due to supply Max jets to new airline Akasa, which is backed by billionaire investor Rakesh Jhunjhunwala.
Bloomberg News reported earlier that talks with Air India were ongoing for narrowbody aircraft as well, including Airbus and Boeing's workhorse models. The deal may involve as many as 50 A350 jets and 100 A321neo aircraft, the Business Standard newspaper reported citing sources it didn't identify.
An Airbus spokesman said the company is always talking to existing and potential customers, while declining to comment further. A representative for Tata didn't immediately respond outside of usual office hours.
Air India could operate the A350 on flights to the US, which it currently serves with Boeing Co. 777s and 787-8s, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named. The A350 order would be worth more than $6 billion based on list prices, before traditional industry discounts.
Boeing jets could also factor into an order. Bloomberg reported in February that Air India was in talks with Airbus and Boeing about a raft of new planes including A350-900s and 787-9s after Tata won control of the former state-owned company and embarked on a fleet-modernization plan.
Once known for its premium services and advertisements featuring Bollywood stars, the airline still has lucrative landing slots at most major airports, but it faces competition from foreign airlines with non-stop services to India and carriers that fly via hubs in the Middle East. Tata, which now owns four airline brands, including the local affiliates of Singapore Airlines Ltd. and AirAsia Group Bhd., is widely expected to consolidate the businesses. It already got antitrust approvals for Air India to take over AirAsia India.
Air India currently has 153 planes, according to its website. They include 49 widebodies manufactured by Boeing and 79 Airbus narrowbodies, along with 25 Boeing 737s at low-cost arm Air India Express.