New Delhi: Billionaire Richard Branson, who founded UK carrier Virgin Atlantic, said he was not in the race for a stake in Air India Ltd.

“I don’t believe so," Branson said in an email, in response to a question on whether Virgin Atlantic was looking at buying a stake in Air India after the government changed the rules last month and allowed foreign airlines to invest in the state-owned carrier.

In January, the government allowed foreign airlines to buy a stake of up to 49% in Air India with prior government approval.

Branson, who was keen to launch an airline in India in the last decade, has turned cautious now, given the boom in local airlines.

“Airlines like IndiGo have done a great job so I suspect we missed the (flight)...the gates are closed right now so we are moving on to other markets," Branson told CNBC-TV18 in a December interview on Virgin’s potential India entry.

A Virgin Atlantic spokesman also said in an email the airline was not looking at an Air India stake.

So far, interest in Air India has been limited—at least that which has been stated publicly.

The Indian government plans to complete the sale by December. It has so far received two “unsolicited" letters of interest but hopes to see more when it formally invites expressions of interest in the next few weeks.

One of the letters, from a foreign firm, has not been made public.

The second letter, from IndiGo, run by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd, shows it’s only interested in Air India’s international operations.

Singapore Airlines has said it would consider acquiring a stake in Air India, depending on the contours of the deal. Tata group, which operates the Vistara airline in India in partnership with Singapore Airlines, and has tried to win Air India in the past, has said the same thing.

Turkey’s Celebi Aviation Holding, India’s Bird Group and Livewel Aviation Services Pvt. Ltd have shown interest in Air India’s subsidiaries.

Air India has a fleet of 140 planes, with a 17% share of the traffic on routes linking India to international destinations and a 13% share of the domestic market.

Global airlines also look for cultural match when considering any potential stake in a foreign airline, said an analyst.

“The investor must have a warm feeling that its investment stands a good chance of success," said former Jet Airways chief executive Steve Forte. “Look at Etihad with Alitalia and Air Berlin...big mistakes and costly. With Alitalia, Etihad did not realize that the Italian airline culture is a nightmare. Is the Air India culture any different? I see a lot of parallels with Alitalia."

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