September 27, 2019 / 11:42 AM / 2 months ago

Air France-KLM CEO sees upside for French aviation in airline bankruptcies

TOULOUSE, France, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Air France-KLM boss Ben Smith on Friday defended his decision not to fly to the aid of two collapsed French airlines, and said market consolidation would eventually benefit the country’s aviation industry and jobs.

Air France last week withdrew a rescue bid for Aigle Azur and has since rebuffed overtures by XL Airways, another insolvent carrier. A bankruptcy court was due to rule on other offers for Aigle Azur later in the day.

“There is going to be consolidation,” the Air France-KLM chief executive told reporters at a ceremony in Toulouse marking the delivery of Air France’s first Airbus A350 jet.

“We believe positive results will come out of it, to ensure that airlines that are based here in France will be stronger to compete globally,” Smith said. “The jobs associated with those larger more powerful airlines will be created here in France.”

While six airlines currently compete on London-New York routes, the CEO added, the smaller Paris-New York market is contested by 10 rival carriers.

Smith was speaking at the end of a week marked by travel firm Thomas Cook’s failure, which affected 600,000 holidaymakers and send shockwaves across the sector.

A long line of small European airlines have also run into trouble faced with industry overcapacity, cut-throat competition and high fuel prices. Germania, Flybmi and Iceland’s WOW have all failed this year, while Slovenia’s Adria Airways has cancelled almost all its flights this week.

Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways parent IAG, has also said that bankruptcies among competitors would help support the group’s growth next year.

STRANDED

Aigle Azur, which stranded 19,000 passengers when it abruptly halted its services earlier this month, operated with 1,150 staff and a fleet of 11 Airbus jets serving Algeria and other destinations in north Africa and beyond.

Air France discussed a joint Aigle Azur bid with Air Caraibes parent Dubreuil Group, but pulled out after concluding that it would require a complex deal with its own unions. EasyJet also withdrew an earlier offer.

The French flag carrier has also resisted entreaties by XL Airways CEO Laurent Magnin to acquire the failed airline, its 570 staff and four Airbus planes.

Franco-Dutch Air France-KLM remains sceptical of the low-cost, long-haul market plied by XL, Smith said. “I don’t believe today the XL model offers something that would complement Air France.”

Smith said absorbing either smaller carrier would have endangered labour relations at Air France, which last year lost 335 million euros ($366 million) to a wave of strikes.

“We have a stable social environment today in Air France, and we’ve made it clear we’re not going to jeopardise that,” he said.

The commercial court in Evry, south of Paris, was this week assessing two remaining Aigle Azur bids, from minority shareholder Gerard Houa and a former Air France executive. Both offers are understood to require additional funding from the French state or other backers. ($1 = 0.9152 euros) (Reporting by Laurence Frost; Editing by Kirsten Donovan)

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