After months of negotiations Etihad Airways is making its largest foreign investment ever and buying a 49 percent stake in struggling Italian-flagged carrier Alitalia.
While some of the Dubai-based carriers previous acquisitions have faced official EU inquiries into the growing influence foreign companies from the Middle East and Asia have over struggling European carriers, the case with Alitalia is different.
Alitalia currently places 70th out of 100 global carriers ranked by Skytrax. Meanwhile, Etihad is in seventh place, in part due to its services like "The Residence", which offers an 11.6-square meter 3-room upper deck cabin on its Etihad A380 jet. It has a living room, separate double bedroom, ensuite shower room and even an academy-trained personal butler, travel concierge and chef.
“European aviation is financially the weakest amongst the world’s major regions,” Tony Tyler, Chief Executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA,) told industry officials at a conference in Rome earlier this month. “Witnessing firsthand the plight of Alitalia -- among the worst cases -- this should not come as a surprise for you here,” he added.
He pointed out that current industry expectations see European airlines posting a $2.8 billion net profit this year after taxes, which comes out to roughly $3.23 per passenger, less than a third of what their North American counterparts earn.
Last year the Italian government gave its flagship carrier a $681 million rescue package, but by June this year Alitalia risked running out of cash within months. And its chief executive told Reuters earlier this month that the carrier was negotiating with banks about restructuring $954 million worth of debt.
“We are delighted to move forward with Etihad Airways providing Alitalia with an ideal strategic partner enhancing the company’s long term growth perspectives.” Alitalia president Robert Colaninno said in a public statement earlier this month.
Though an official statement made by both companies on Wednesday didn’t disclose details, earlier this month Italian Infrastructure Minister Maurizio Lupi said the investment would be worth $761.6 million plus another $941 million over the next few years.
The deal is just one of many made by the United Arab Emirates flagship, which launched just a decade ago with heavy state backing but is now expanding globally.
In Europe, it entered a revenue-sharing partnership with Air France-KLM SA (FRA:AFR,) which itself holds a seven percent stake in Alitalia, bought 4.1 percent of Ireland’s Aer Lingus Group PLC (LON:AERA), 49 percent of Air Serbia and 33.3 percent of Darwin Airlines, of Switzerland according to the Journal.
In April, Etihad bought stakes in AirBerlin Plc (ETR:AB1.) The move caught the attention of the European Commission, which launched an official inquiry into whether or not companies like Etihad are taking over their Europe-based counterparts and breaking rules about shareholder structures.
“The commission has asked member states for more details on how these investments comply with EU rules on ownership and control of European airlines,” it said after rumors that Etihad executives were calling the shots at Germany’s second-largest carrier, according to Reuters.
AirBerlin reportedly denied the allegations, arguing that Etihad held just 2 of 11 seats on the airline’s advisory board.