Airline Giants Craving Latin America Foothold Eye Avianca Deal

  • Delta, United said to have bid for stake in Colombian carrier
  • Route network stretches to Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica

Some of the world’s biggest airlines, looking for a larger foothold in Latin America, may have found a path through Colombia.

Avianca Holdings SA, based in Bogota, has been hunting for an international partner to help shore up its balance sheet and support growth. The publicly traded carrier is controlled by brothers German and Jose Efromovich, who also own a separate airline called Avianca Brasil through a closely held holding company.

Some giants of the industry have been evaluating the idea. Earlier this year, Delta Air Lines Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc. and Copa Airlines SA made non-binding offers for a minority stake in Avianca Holdings, people familiar with the proposals said, declining to be named because the information isn’t public. There’s no guarantee any deal will be reached.

Avianca Holdings offers potential suitors a point of entry into markets including Colombia, Peru, Costa Rica and Ecuador. The established brand and route network of the Bogota-based company would also offer Delta and United a way to make inroads in South America against American Airlines Group Inc.

“You want a piece of the action when things turn around,”  Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant with BoydGroup International, said. “When you have a major carrier going north and south in American Airlines, if you can grab someone like this to keep them out of the open cloak of your competition, it makes sense.”

Delta and Avianca declined to comment. United and Copa didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Brazil Connection

Avianca, with a market value of $851.1 million, carried 61 percent of Colombia’s more than 15 million passengers through July. Striking a deal could also give the winning bidder a chance to forge a partnership with Avianca Brasil, a separate airline the Efromovich brothers run, which controls about 11 percent of the Brazilian market.

The attractiveness of a Brazil foray depends on a bidder’s appetite for risk. The South American nation is currently stuck in its longest recession in more than a century, and its airline industry is suffering. Through July, 51.8 million passengers flew domestically in Brazil, down 8.4 percent from a year earlier, according to the nation’s aviation agency.

But Brazil and other parts of Latin America still offer a long-term opportunity for airlines. Parts of the region’s terrain are difficult to traverse and many far-flung cities aren’t quickly accessible by road. Getting partners with the best routes between those cities and urban centers like Sao Paulo or Bogota would give the international carriers a steady flow of passengers.

A deal in Colombia is no guarantee of entry into Brazil. The Efromovich brothers have unsuccessfully tried to combine the two Aviancas. The Colombian carrier, which is in better shape than its Brazilian counterpart, rejected a proposal in October, Bloomberg News reported at the time. The brothers haven’t abandoned the plan though, one of the people familiar with the matter said.

Elliott Management

The Avianca opportunity is presenting itself at the same time as the Efromovich brothers have faced their own difficulties, using the majority of their shares as collateral to borrow funds from Paul Singer’s Elliott Management Corp. The resources were partially used to pay debts for shipyards owned in Brazil by the brothers’ conglomerate, Synergy Group, the person said. One of the shipyards filed for bankruptcy protection.

The Latin American market has also grown overcrowded and ripe for deals, Paulo Kakinoff, chief executive officer of Brazilian carrier Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes SA, told newspaper Valor this week in an interview.

“This is more a vision than a prediction: There will be a consolidation movement,” he said.

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