November 05, 2012
Jens Flottau Toulouse and Frankfurt
The acquisition of TAP Portugal by Brazilian conglomerate Synergy Group will not be the biggest transaction ever among international airlines, but it could be one of the most significant: For the first time, a European flag carrier could be fully owned by a non-European investor.
Synergy Group, which emerged as the only remaining bidder for TAP Portugal last month, is entering final negotiations with the Portuguese government over the purchase price, among other things. Portugal agreed to sell TAP along with other state-owned companies last year as part of an EU bailout that kept government finances from collapsing. Synergy plans to integrate TAP into its growing portfolio of airlines that also includes AviancaTACA, Aerogal and Ocean Air (now Avianca Brazil), as well as some smaller operations.
As significant as the acquisition by a Latin American investor would be, another striking aspect of the deal is who has decided not to invest. None of the European majors bid for TAP, which has a vast network into Latin America, particularly Brazil. Lufthansa and International Airlines Group (IAG), parent of British Airways and Iberia, are understood to have considered it but backed off, likely because they do not have money to spend on acquisitions these days.
The potential deal is also a sign of how economic power is shifting in the industry to players that were not on the global radar screen even a few years ago. There has been European investment in the Latin American airline industry—as in the case of Grupo Marsans and now-state owned Aerolineas Argentinas—but this time the roles are swapped.
In another deal, HNA Group acquired a 48% stake in Aigle Azur, a small French airline operating a limited network mostly to North Africa as well as charters. HNA is the parent of Hainan Airlines, China's fourth-largest carrier. As a consequence of the investment, Aigle Azur plans to add two Airbus A330s to its fleet of 13 A320-family aircraft and launch Paris-Beijing services next year. HNA has explored other investments in Europe, including now defunct Malev Hungarian Airlines and Air Berlin. In Ghana, it set up Africa World Airlines, which started flying in September.
However, it is highly unlikely that outside investors will fill the void that Europeans are creating by holding back on takeovers, so consolidation is also coming in other forms. Swiss charter airline Hello was the last victim in a growing number of airline failures this year, along with those of Spanair and Malev.