Lufthansa <LHAG.DE> is milking an antitrust standoff with the European competition regulators to extract maximum cost cuts from Austrian Airlines <AUAV.VI> as it seeks to cement its dominance of central Europe’s skies.
The German flag carrier has held back key concessions to the European Commission needed to secure approval for the takeover of the ailing airline while it squeezes further concessions from Austrian’s workforce and its biggest shareholder, the Austrian government. It won another 150 million euros in savings from job cuts agreed in a third round of AUA cost-cutting this week.
The EU regulator, which supports airline consolidation in principle, is right to insist that the creation of a central European mega-carrier should not be at the expense of consumer choice on key routes such as Vienna-Frankfurt.
Lufthansa, which has set its own deadline of July 31 to clinch the deal, has the Austrians in a tight spot because the cost to the Austrian taxpayer would be far higher if it walked away. The Austrian government holding company, OIAG, says this could cost about 1,400 jobs and imply total costs of 840 million euros. The state has promised to assume 500 million euros of AUA’s 1 billion euros of debt as part of a Lufthansa deal.
The German giant needs to reduce the cost of acquisitions it launched last year before the financial crisis hit air travel.
It has already beaten down Sir Michael Bishop to lower the cost of his majority stake in British carrier BMI [BMI.UL] and has snapped up Brussels Airlines, the successor to bankrupt Belgian flag carrier Sabena.
In the latter case, Lufthansa made concessions to the Commission on routes and take-off and landing slots to avoid restricting competition. But it has balked so far at the most important remedies for the Austrian deal, which concern what would be a monopoly on nine daily flights between Vienna and Geneva, operated jointly with another subsidiary, Swiss, and above all on feeder flights to its Frankfurt Airport hub to connect with its more lucrative transatlantic routes.
If the Commission does not stand firm on these issues, it risks being overturned by the EU’s Court of First Instance, to which rivals Air France-KLM <AIRF.PA> and former Formula 1 racing ace Niki Lauda’s latest venture, Fly Niki, would undoubtedly appeal.
Of course, Lufthansa could let the Austrian deal founder on EU competition concerns in hopes of picking up the pieces of a shrunken or bankrupt AUA later. But it might face competition were the airline’s assets to be sold out of bankruptcy. Both Air France and a consortium of Air Berlin and Fly Niki were interested last time.
So the betting must be that, as with the Belgian deal, it will yield to Brussels’ demands to clinch the deal in the end.