Air Berlin is only worth anything as long as it keeps flying. This is now the German government’s problem, writes fvw’s Lutz Schmidt.
Air Berlin’s main shareholder pulled out at just the right time – in the middle of the main holiday season and just a few weeks before the general election. The German government had no choice but to guarantee the flight operations of the country’s second-largest airline through a temporary credit.
If flights had been stopped due to the insolvency, not only would many thousands of holidaymakers have been stranded abroad and many others would not have been able to go on holiday in the first place. The issue of jobs at Air Berlin in Düsseldorf and Berlin also meant that there was no other way to react quickly. The end of the permanent cash flow from Abu Dhabi was therefore carefully chosen.
Moreover, the only relevant assets of Air Berlin are its slots at major German airports. Even transport minister Alexander Dobrindt has understood this. But he does not seem to have understood how perishable this asset is when he talks about selling slots. This is not legally possible separately from the airline. It is essential therefore to keep Air Berlin in the air at any cost. And this task is now that of the German government and no longer that of the owners of Etihad Airways.
Unfortunately, the story of Air Berlin is now coming towards an end. Yet it is necessary to extend it long enough to ensure that taxpayers’ money will last until the valuable slots can be transferred to other airlines.
This is another crucial issue. A complete takeover of Air Berlin by Lufthansa is certainly impossible for anti-trust reasons. Moreover, the associated slots would not really be a big gain for the Lufthansa Group as these would mostly have to be given back to the German airport coordinator on competition grounds. In other words, Lufthansa would only slightly profit from Air Berlin’s main asset, its slots.
So the question is, who apart from Lufthansa might want to buy parts of Air Berlin. TUI? Condor? Low-cost carriers? At most they would be interested in the low-cost operations of Niki, which is specialised in leisure routes. Could that repay the €150 million (at least) of the German government. Perhaps. But probably not.