Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandes. The Malaysian low-cost carrier in 2014 launched domestic flight operations in India, AirAsia India, along with local joint venture partner Tata Sons. Photo: Mint
Air Asia chief executive Tony Fernandes. The Malaysian low-cost carrier in 2014 launched domestic flight operations in India, AirAsia India, along with local joint venture partner Tata Sons. Photo: Mint

CBI files case against AirAsia, CEO Tony Fernandes for alleged corruption

Air Asia is accused of lobbying the government for overseas flight permits and violating rules that prevent foreign airlines from controlling Indian operators

Mumbai/New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) on Tuesday raided the offices of AirAsia India and filed a complaint against Tony Fernandes, chief executive of the company’s Malaysian parent, for allegedly lobbying the government for overseas flight permits and violating rules that prevent foreign airlines from controlling Indian operators.

CBI’s first information report (FIR) says the violations occurred from 2013 to 2016, before the government eased restrictions on Indian airlines starting overseas flights in June 2016. The rule that bars giving management control to foreigners remains.

Bharatiya Janata Party leader Subramanian Swamy approached the Delhi high court in 2016, seeking suspension of AirAsia’s licence. Swamy was joined by Federation of Indian Airlines, which represents IndiGo, Jet Airways, GoAir and SpiceJet, in his challenge. In November 2016, the Delhi high court directed the airline regulator to conduct an inquiry into the issue.

The FIR, a copy of which was reviewed by Mint, also names AirAsia’s deputy chief executive officer Tharumalingam Kanagalingam, AirAsia India director Ramachandran Venkataramanan, HNR Trading PTE Ltd’s Rajender Dubey, Travel/Total Food Service’s Sunil Kapoor, AirAsia India and its parent and unknown government officials.

A CBI spokesperson said that the raids at AirAsia India’s offices happened on Tuesday.

AirAsia (India) Ltd, a joint venture between Tata Sons Ltd (49%) and Malaysia’s AirAsia Bhd (49%), started operations in June 2014.

In a statement, AirAsia India denied any wrongdoing and said it is cooperating with all regulators and agencies to present the facts. A Tata group spokesperson declined to comment.

The FIR registered on 28 May in New Delhi says AirAsia India was indirectly controlled and operated by AirAsia.

“It is further revealed that the shareholders and Indian partners at the joint venture, including the board members, were not only aware of these intentions, but also consciously ensured violating the then FIPB (foreign investment promotion board) norms; hence violation of FDI norms were prima-facie found by giving effective management control to a foreign entity," said the FIR.

Until June 2016, all domestic airlines were expected to fly for at least five years and acquire a fleet of 20 planes before starting international operations. In that month, the Union cabinet partially abolished the policy and allowed an airline to fly abroad after having 20 aircraft in its fleet.

The FIR also stated that public servants from the civil aviation ministry and FIPB entered into a criminal conspiracy with Venkataramanan, Fernandes, Kanalingam and Dubey with the intent of helping AirAsia India speed up the approval process and change aviation policies to suit the company.

The FIR accuses Dubey of acting as a liaison agent in seeking appointments and facilitating meetings of AirAsia India executives with various government officials for clearance of various formalities.

Priyanka Mittal in New Delhi contributed to this story.

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