Saturday 7 December 2019

Abu Dhabi-based carrier shows it is seriously interested

AER Lingus celebrated its 75th anniversary last year but it has never necessarily been a given that some future chief executive will be blowing out 100 candles in 2036.

Still, compared to a few years ago, the airline has a much better chance now of reaching that landmark. Major restructuring at the carrier is all but complete.

Sorting out a big pension issue that affects thousands of former and current Aer Lingus workers will seal the final cracks. It will also pave the way for the Government to offload its 25pc stake.

Etihad's purchase of a near-3pc holding in Aer Lingus is effectively a statement of intent -- and a political one at that. The airline has already made it clear that it is interested in the Government's holding.

Entering the store shows that Etihad is still serious.

Stephen Furlong, an aviation analyst at Davy stockbrokers, believes that Etihad will now "go the whole hog" and seek to buy the Government's stake when it goes on sale -- most likely early next year.

"Having a Middle-Eastern partner is a good thing for Aer Lingus," he said. "They're going to be big players," he added, citing the juggernaut growth of Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

Etihad said yesterday that its acquisition of Aer Lingus shares "reflected its desire to forge a commercial partnership" with the airline.

It added that a partnership could produce "significant commercial benefits" for both airlines.

Mr Furlong pointed out that having Etihad as a major shareholder would be of strong strategic and financial benefit to Aer Lingus, particularly as the Irish airline faces completing aircraft-purchase contracts later this decade, but also in terms of its future survival.

When Etihad acquired a 40pc stake in Air Seychelles, it paid $20m (€15m) for the holding and provided a $25m shareholder's loan.

Aer Lingus is an attractive proposition because it has already been whipped into shape by chief executive Christoph Mueller. Its landing slots at Heathrow are undoubtedly of interest too, but Dublin Airport's US customs and immigration clearance facility could also prove useful.

Still, there's also no certainty that Etihad will proceed. Things can change rapidly in the airline business. For Etihad, this is a work in progress.

John Mulligan

Irish Independent

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