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Etihad's Investment in Air Berlin Hits Turbulence

Etihad and Air Berlin CEOs. Source Reuters
James Hogan (l) CEO of Etihad Airways and Air Berlin's CEO Wolfgang Prock-Schauer during happier days.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If Germany restricts Etihad’s ownership of Air Berlin, the Abu Dhabi group could pull out, throwing into question the future of Germany’s No. 2 airline.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Etihad rescued Air Berlin with an injection of more than €300 million.
    • E.U. rules require airlines to be controlled by Europeans.
    • German aviation officials say no rules have been violated, but some politicians are wary.
  • Audio

    Audio

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Air Berlin, Germany’s second largest airline, may be slipping out of European control, senior politicians have warned.

The state premiers of Hesse and Bavaria, which both contain major airport hubs, raised concerns after Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways injected €300 million ($388 million) into its ailing rival to keep it afloat earlier this year.

The deal, comprising bonds and an extended shareholders’ loan, raised Etihad’s stake in Air Berlin to 29.2 percent. European Union law limits foreign ownership to 49 percent and states that control must be retained in the E.U.

A report by the German Federal Aviation Office into the ownership and control of Air Berlin stated that there was no “violation of standards.”  Majority ownership of the airline reportedly remains in the European Union. In addition, Etihad isn’t in control of Air Berlin, according the evaluation obtained by Handelsblatt.

But many worry that the civil aviation authority’s conclusions do not go far enough and could weaken Germany’s airline industry.

Lufthansa fears that state-financed airlines such as Etihad could increase pressure on Germany’s biggest airline.

There are also concerns that Air Berlin, aided by Etihad, could bypass Germany’s established hubs at Frankfurt and Munich by ferrying increasing numbers of passengers to hubs in the Arab region.

It is these fears that led Volker Bouffier and Horst Seehofer, state premiers of Hesse and Bavaria respectively, to lobby the federal transport minister.

In a letter, excerpts of which Handesblatt has obtained, Mr. Bouffier said Alexander Dobrindt should take action “in the national interest.”

“In view of the economic significance of the air transport industry, I request your critical observation” and “careful examination of whether effective control” by European owners “is still guaranteed,” he wrote.

Mr. Seehofer, leader of the Christian Social Union party, of which Mr. Dobrindt is a member, shared similar sentiments in a separate letter to the minister. Mr. Dobrindt replied saying his ministry and the Federal Aviation Office were in “close contact and will continue to carefully examine compliance with European law.”

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