Indian officials have met with executives from nine companies to gauge interest in the sale of Air India (AI, Mumbai Int'l), sources close to the matter have told Bloomberg.

The companies that discussed the sale in what was described as “preliminary meetings” included IndiGo Airlines, SpiceJet, Tata Sons, which owns 51% of AirAsia India and 51% of Vistara, and British Airways and Iberia owner IAG International Airlines Group, the sources said without naming the rest. Representatives at these four entities declined to comment to Bloomberg.

Interested bidders have until March 17 to submit expressions of interest in buying the state's 100% stake in Air India and its Air India Express subsidiary as well as 50% of Air India SATS Airport Services (AISATS) Private Limited. To sweeten the deal, the government has decided to absorb 60% of Air India's debt, which totals over INR600 billion rupees (USD8.4 billion), leaving any potential buyer to shoulder INR230.3 billion (USD3.2 billion) of debt.

Emirates commented that it was not interested in the stake, telling The Hindu: “Through our partnerships with SpiceJet and Vistara, our customers have access to an extensive network of cities across India. We do not intend to acquire equity in Air India as we are currently focused on our own organic growth.”

Despite its debt burden, some of the lucrative assets in Air India's possession include slots at congested London Heathrow, thousands of unionized pilots and crew, and an owned fleet of 103 aircraft (nineteen A319-100s, twelve A320-200s, twenty A321-200s, three B737-200s, four B737-200(C)s, seventeen B737-800s, four B747-400s, three B777-200(LR)s, fifteen B777-300(ER)s, and six B787-8s, according to the ch-aviation fleets advanced module).

If a buyer cannot be found, the airline will have to cease operations, Aviation Minister Hardeep Singh Puri has warned. Air India has not made a profit since 2007, last year posting a loss of USD1.2 billion, its highest ever.