Etihad Airways says Virgin Australia remains an important partner but has declined to comment on renewed speculation it may sell its stake in the Australian carrier.
Pundits have been conjecturing that Etihad might quit its stake of just over 20 per cent in Australia’s number two carrier since it pulled its financial support for troubled European carriers Air Berlin and Alitalia.
Australia’s national newspaper, The Australian, reported over Easter there was renewed speculation in the market over the intentions of Virgin shareholders “with some pondering whether Etihad is about to stake an exit”.
Asked about the speculation, Etihad said: “We don’t comment on rumor or speculation, but we continue to work closely with Virgin Australia as they are an important partner for Etihad Airways.”
There has been a view that Etihad is looking to unravel the network of investments made by former chief executive James Hogan as it seeks to bolster its bottom line after recording a $US1.87 billion loss in 2016.
Much of the loss was due to a $US1.06 billion charge for a fleet write-down and a $US808 million charge related to Air Berlin and Alitalia. But it was also hit by lower oil prices, overcapacity and the impact of terrorism attacks in Europe.
Etihad launched a review of its international investment strategy in late 2016 but chief executive Peter Baumgarten said in an interview with Abu Dhabi’s The National in November last year that there were “no plans to step out of any of our existing partners at this stage”.
“From a shareholder perspective, Alitalia and Air Berlin have not been unimportant, but let’s not forget we have over 50 codeshare partners, many of whose commercial operations benefit Etihad,’’ he told the newspaper. “We have always been a business that has been built on partnerships, so there is life beyond Air Berlin and Alitalia.’’
Baumgartner said he was confident of Etihad’s prospects of recovery and intended to increase its focus on direct services and point-to-point markets. He said there were no plans for a merger with another UAE carrier but that cost-cutting would continue.
Air Berlin is now defunct while Alitalia is in special administration and looking for a new investor. Germany’s Lufthansa, British low-cost carrier easyJet and U.S. private equity fund Cerberus are among those said to have expressed interest in the Italian carrier.
Virgin is not in the same category. The Australian carrier made a fiscal 2017 underlying profit of $A102.5 million. It has been reducing debt and is operating in a more rational domestic market after a capacity battle with rival Qantas that hammered both carriers’ bottom lines.
However, it did make a small net loss attributable to shareholders for the six months ending December 31, 2017, of $A10.3 million.
More than 90 per cent of the carrier is owned by major shareholders Etihad, Singapore Airlines, HNA Group, Nanshan Group and Virgin Group.
It had looked at privatising but announced in February it had decided to stay publicly listed.