After comments made last week by Lufthansa’s CEO Carsten Spohr, it appears that Lufthansa is putting together a strategy that would allow it to absorb Air Berlin into Eurowings. After years of struggling, and failed subsidies/investments by Etihad, it appears that Air Berlin is on life support and without intervention, could simply fade away.
Spohr, speaking before the Lufthansa Group Annual Shareholder’s Meeting, stated 3 criteria would need to be met before Lufthansa would feel comfortable writing a check for Air Berlin. Specifically he addressed:
- Air Berlin’s debt level of 1 BILLION Euro and a debt ratio of 4.5:1 makes it a VERY EXPENSIVE acquisition if LH were to acquire the liability. Spohr suggested that if Lufthansa were to be interested in acquiring ‘AB’, the debt would have to be assumed by Etihad (Air Berlin stakeholder), or be disbursed by some other means before AB would be welcomed to the LH Group. LH simply would refuse any deal that would involve assuming any of the debt
- Anti-Trust Concerns from the EU would overshadow any thought of the acquisition. Not only on a continental EU level, but also intra-Germany, since an AB acquisition by Lufthansa would leave Lufthansa as the only major airline within Germany. Knowing the EU’s political leanings, it would be foolish to think that they would award a monopoly to Lufthansa. This issue would create an opportunity for RyanAir or EasyJet to swoop in with proposals for Air Berlin which could be disastrous for Lufthansa. After all, who wants RyanAir or EasyJet operating in their neighborhood. Air Berlin joining Lufthansa would also lead to Air Berlin’s exit from OneWorld.
- Before any deal would take place, Air Berlin would also be required to reign in their costs. Progress is being made, but Air Berlin is not near being profitable, and again, Lufthansa has indicated that it does not want to inherit any liabilities should they decided to bid for Air Berlin.
- Assurances would also need to be made for Air Berlin staff. Any merger would almost certainly guarantee a significant amount of staff overlap and with worker protection laws in Germany being the way they are, Lufthansa will not be able to simply layoff unnecessary workers. AB employs approximately 8500 people and accommodations would need to me made for those at risk of losing their jobs as a result of a merger.
Should LH find a way to navigate the regulatory gauntlet, and get others to take the liability left behind by Air Berlin, it would be an obvious coup for Lufthansa. Considering that LH’s main focus over the last 3 years has been to build an LCC product that can take on, and beat the likes of RyanAir and EasyJet at their own game, plugging Air Berlin into Eurowings would catapult LH to the forefront of LCC operations in Europe. The only problem is that Europe’s politics and Lufthansa’s competitors will do everything possible to keep Lufthansa from realizing that success.
Austrian Airlines on March 7 introduced the first wet-leased Air Berlin A320 into service for Lufthansa Group. The aircraft, D-ABZA, flew in Austrian colors from Vienna to Skopje. D-ABZC entered service for OS in March 8.
D-ABZA and D-ABZC are the first 2 of 5 Air Berlin aircraft that will operate for Austrian. Under the wet-lease agreement, the aircraft will carry OS colors, however the crew that you will see aboard the plane will be dressed in their Air Berlin uniforms since technically the employees are on lease from Air Berlin.
D-ABZA shows off her new Austrian Colors. Photo courtesy of Austrian Airlines.
This opportunity for Austrian to expand their fleet and reach comes after Lufthansa agreed with Air Berlin to sublet 40 Air Berlin aircraft in order to help Air Berlin restructure their operations in an attempt to return to profitability. Air Berlin’s key investor, Etihad, was instrumental in working with LH to make the deal possible.
D-ABZC in her old AB colors…..
Most of the 40 aircraft will be painted in LH Group’s Eurowings livery and will be deployed on routes that EW normally serves along with a few new additions thanks to having an airport full of new planes to deploy.
Reuters has reported that talks may have taken place between Lufthansa and Alitalia about the prospects of Lufthansa taking a substantial stake in Italy’s national carrier. The main topic of the conversation may have been regarding Etihad looking to give Air Berlin to Lufthansa in return for a stake in Alitalia.
Etihad currently owns a 49% stake in Air Berlin and a 29% stake in Alitalia and both investments are slowly becoming disasters for Etihad. So much so that Etihad signed off on the Air Berlin deal to let Lufthansa lease 40 aircraft and take over a substantial part of Air Berlin’s routes while Air Berlin tries to fix its woes.
According to the article, Alitalia management denied that any talks have happened but what are they supposed to say? Yes? We did and Lufthansa is going buy a large piece of us and we’re going to throw in Air Berlin as a door prize? How many times have discussions been denied only to become fact a short time later.
It’s an interesting 3-way deal that may be brewing between Rome, Frankfurt and Abu Dhabi. Etihad sees 2 major losses on the horizon with Air Berlin and Alitalia, and sees a way out of almost both problems by giving away Air Berlin to Lufthansa in turn for Lufthansa taking a stake in Alitalia.
My gut suggests that a complete take over of Air Berlin by Lufthansa would simply solidify their Eurowings unit as one of Europe’s largest Low Cost Carriers (LCC) without Lufthansa having to grow the brand organically from within. Considering Air Berlin’s dire financial straits, LH could steal the airline for a song.
But of course, these conversations never happened 😉
What we knew would happen for weeks has become official. Lufthansa has entered a Letter of Intent with Air Berlin to assume a wet-lease for 40 Air Berlin aircraft, complete with Air Berlin crews to operate the flights. The aircraft will enter service on March 26, 2017, coinciding with the beginning of Lufthansa’s Summer timetable. 35 of the aircraft will be repainted to the Eurowings livery, while the remain 5 will fly under Austrian’s colors. Specifically, the lease involves 29 Airbus 320 and 11 Airbus A319 aircraft.
The decision was made after Lufthansa approached Air Berlin with an offer to help reduce some of the stress that Air Berlin is under due to mounting losses. Of course LH was not completely altruistic with the offer since there would be a substantial benefit to Eurowings, both in the growth of the fleet and the reduction of competition in the German LCC market.
Lufthansa will operate the aircraft on existing Air Berlin routes except those that serve Dusseldorf or Berlin. Air Berlin will continue to operate out these major hubs. However I do expect that a few tweaks will be made to the timetable to take into account existing routes already being flown by Eurowings.
Under wet lease agreements, the operating airline pays ‘rent’ for the aircraft and assumes all other responsibilities for the aircraft including maintenance etc. Any profits or losses remain with the airline leasing the aircraft, obviously in this case it is Lufthansa.
The ‘Letter of Intent’ announcement came from the Supervisory Board of the Lufthansa Group. The board held a regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday (28 September) to discuss various proposals and strategy initiatives. Another major announcement that came from the Board was the approval for the Lufthansa Group to purchase the remaining 55 percent stake that it did not already own in Brussels Airlines.
Over the past few weeks it was quite obvious that Air Berlin was in ‘perilous peril’. News starting coming from Germany that Etihad was no longer happy with their stake in Air Berlin and was even looking at ways to divest of their ‘mistake’. At the top of most headlines was the fact that Lufthansa was prepared to take advantage of AB’s weakness and takeover aircraft and routes while Air Berlin restructured their operations.
With the latest news from Germany on Monday, we now gain clarity and confirmation of what has been discussed previously.
People in Europe were waking up to headlines that Air Berlin indeed will be restructuring operations in an attempt to return to profitability. Leading the list of changes is the elimination of over 1,000 jobs and reduction of its fleet of 127 aircraft to only 70 by the end of this year.
To dovetail this announcement, Lufthansa has been planning for this and had previously offered to assume control of 40 of Air Berlin’s aircraft and operate most of the Air Berlin routes that do not serve Dusseldorf or Berlin, both of which are major AB hubs. LH will ‘wet lease’ the aircraft and crews from AB and will operate them under ‘Eurowings’, LH’s Low Cost Carrier unit. What this means is Air Berlin is guaranteed to receive ‘rent’ for the aircraft, but Lufthansa gets to keep profits, or absorb losses.
In addition to the aircraft that Lufthansa will take over, it appears that Air Berlin will also sell 17 of their birds currently owned by ‘Niki’ to TUIFly. ‘Niki’ is an Austrian based subsidiary of Air Berlin.
The timing of the implosion of Air Berlin couldn’t have happened at a better time for Lufthansa. At the top of LH Group’s priority list for 2016 was to make sure that Eurowings would be set up for success and become accretive to Group’s balance sheet. So far success has been muted for a variety of reasons including the fact that the fleet is a bit undersized, uber aggressive competition from competitors, and a change in consumer sentiment in Europe that has fewer people thinking about travel.
With the injection of 40 aircraft, new routes, and broader coverage Lufthansa has the opportunity to make Eurowings what it is supposed to be, which is a low cost option for passengers to travel to destinations not usually served by mainline carriers. At this moment, Eurowings only has 33 aircraft in the fleet making it difficult to reach their goal. With the influx of 40 new aircraft, crew and hundreds of new flights, EW will have literally doubled in size over night without much effort or substantial risk.
Eurowings now has the opportunity to finally meet the expectations that everyone had for it. However the expectations may have doubled as well!
Lufthansa Group’s Supervisory Board is scheduled to meet Wednesday, September 27 to review and vote on the proposal for bailing out Air Berlin. It’s expected to be approved unanimously so expected another announcement in the coming days that confirms what we already know.