STAFF at Dublin-based Stobart Air did own a majority stake in the Aer Lingus Regional operator prior to a deal last week that saw the UK-based Stobart Group retake control of the business, its managing director has insisted.
But Stobart Air boss Andy Jolly has told the 450 staff in a memo that their ownership was via voting control and did not specify if they had a majority economic interest in the carrier.
Stobart Group has also said that routes operated between Ireland and the UK by Stobart Air under the current Aer Lingus Regional contract would be attractive to other airlines in the event that Stobart Air does not secure an extension to that contract, which expires at the end of 2022.
Stobart Group had told investors in a regulatory news statement (RNS) this week that the company is continuing its "positive dialogue to conclude a long-term franchise extension and ensure the business is put on a sound financial footing".
Asked how the group will finance Stobart Air if it does not secure an extension to the Aer Lingus contract beyond 2022, a spokesman said the cost of funding the airline is factored into its financing requirements, including an aircraft lease break clause that would come into effect if the contract is not renewed.
"We would point you to the paragraph in the RNS that highlights the break clause which would have the effect of reducing the funding requirement, and to the fact that we fly popular routes between the UK and Ireland that would be attractive to a range of airlines," he said.
Stobart Group has pledged an initial €25m to Stobart Air, but a majority of that will be consumed by aircraft lease payments and maintenance costs. Aer Lingus has declined to say what structure its future regional service might take, or if it intends to use a competitive tendering process to award a new contract.
Stobart Group bought a 49pc stake in Stobart Air last week from accountancy group EY, the administrator of UK-based Connect Airways, of which Stobart Air was a part. Stobart Group owns 30pc of Connect.
Stobart Group ostensibly handed Stobart Air staff a 51pc stake in the carrier last year to ensure post-Brexit compliance with EU rules which mandate that EU airlines must be majority owned and controlled by EU nationals. Stobart Group now controls almost 79pc of Stobart Air.
Mr Jolly told staff on Monday that the ownership structure last year was approved by the Commission for Aviation Regulation, which has insisted Stobart Air now continues to be in compliance with EU ownership rules.
EY cited client confidentiality yesterday when it was asked if the Stobart Air employee benefit trust, of which Stobart Group CEO Warwick Brady is a trustee, had been contacted about the potential sale of the 49pc stake in Stobart Air, or if the trust or any other parties had contacted EY about acquiring the stake.
Mr Jolly also told staff that the deal with Stobart Group effectively helps Stobart Air survive.
"A number of you have raised the matter… specifically in relation to what that change of ownership means to you as an employee," he said in his memo.
"The short answer is that this transaction has guaranteed that the business can continue to trade through the current catastrophic economic downturn," he added.