TUI's Air Berlin Interest Confined to Safeguarding Own StaffBy
Tour operator has 700 personnel caught up in German insolvency
CEO Joussen says he won’t bid for ailing airline’s assets
Europe’s biggest holiday company, which disclosed last week that it would engage in talks following the insolvency filing, doesn’t plan to pick up assets and is neutral on what Deutsche Lufthansa AG might acquire in a breakup of the business, Chief Executive Officer Fritz Joussen said in an interview. He added that all parties concerned should strive to save as many jobs as possible.
“I have 700 people who are at risk,” the CEO said Monday in London. “That is the reason why I’m there. I am not interested in Air Berlin and I’m not interested in Lufthansa. I am involved because 10 years ago we sold a portfolio of city routes to Air Berlin including the airplanes and including people.”
Air Berlin filed for insolvency Aug. 15 after main shareholder Etihad Airways PJSC of Abu Dhabi withdrew financial support for the company, which has racked up more than 2.7 billion euros ($3.2 billion) of losses in a little over six years and has net debt of 1.2 billion euros.
Joussen said that while “it’s never nice” when a company fails, “a cleaning up” of the German airline market is potentially positive given chronic overcapacity that’s led to rock-bottom fares. For example, Air Berlin priced a flight from Dusseldorf to Majorca at 19 euros, so low that “the taxi when you get there is more expensive than the flight,” he said, adding that he is unconcerned that Lufthansa might be left in a stronger position.
Shares of TUI rose as much as 1 percent to 1,341 pence and were trading at that price as of 3:21 p.m. in London, where the Hanover-based company has its main listing. The stock has gained 15 percent this year, valuing the business at 7.87 billion pounds ($10 billion). Air Berlin has declined 32 percent and is worth 47.8 million euros.
The best outcome for TUI would be to salvage jobs tied to its 10-year, 2009 deal in which it provides 14 Boeing Co. 737 aircraft and crews to Air Berlin on so called wet-lease terms, Joussen said.
“If somebody gives us business or wants to carve out business and hand back people in order not to lay them off, then we would be available,” Joussen said. “We are involved in negotiation, we have our interest, but our interests are targeted to find a home for 700 people.”
TUI owns only three of the planes involved in the lease deal, the executive said, with the other 11 owned by banks. “If they are handed back, it is 14 crews plus three aeroplanes,” he said.
The wet-lease operations were folded into Air Berlin’s Austrian Niki operation in January to create a bigger tourist-focused airline. Following the failure of an Etihad plan for joint ownership, TUI pondered becoming a majority shareholder of the wider business, Joussen revealed. The company later decided that carving out the operation would be too complex. “I think now that time doesn’t allow for anything else but a more short-term decision,” he said.
The German government’s loan that will allow Air Berlin, which has 8,600 staff, to keep flying for the next three months is reasonable, Joussen said, as long as it’s intended to allow the insolvency to proceed in an orderly fashion.
“I don’t think there will be a long-term subsidy,” the executive said. “For the time being, it is the right thing. In social market economies like ours it’s important that we do things in a way that’s tolerable for people.”
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr said Thursday at a staff meeting that he’s ready to welcome large numbers of Air Berlin employees to build up his airline’s lower-cost Eurowings unit, though on revised contracts. Germany’s biggest airline is interested in operating about half of Air Berlin’s 140-plane fleet, none of which the insolvent carrier owns.
Air Berlin says it has granted data-room access to more than 10 interested parties after announcing in April that it needed a partner to survive. Assets will most likely go to several bidders, with the process concluding in September. EasyJet Plc has expressed an interest in parts of the business, including German short-haul flights, people familiar with the talks have said.
Joussen said TUI’s own scrutiny of Air Berlin was taxing. “People who come now and look into the books I admire if they understand everything, because we’ve looked into the books for a year and it’s complicated,” he said.
Air Berlin CEO Thomas Winkelmann says Hans Rudolf Woehrl’s Intro-Verwaltungs GmbH has presented no substantial bid for the carrier and that the approach appears to be a “PR gag,” Handelsblatt reported, citing an interview.
— With assistance by Richard Weiss