Are European airlines becoming like football clubs?
This week we have got confirmation of the acquisition of a significant equity stake in Air Berlin by Eithad. The Abu Dhabi carrier will increase its stake to over 29% from the 2.99% it already owned, this will make it the first shareholder in Germany's second largest carrier.
What's interesting in this deal, though, it's not only that this is the first major foray by one of the emerging Gulf carriers in the European airline industry, although maybe not the last if we listen to the rumors coming out of Ireland, but the fact that this investment will have consequences that go beyond the financial sphere. And this raises important questions regarding the industry's competitive landscape.
As this CAPA thorough analysis underlines, Air Berlin and Etihad are going to be, from now on, close partners: financially, as Etihad is injecting €255M in Air Berlin to help finance its fleet renewal and expansion, and also operationally, as Etihad and the airlines in Air Berlin group (including Austria's Niki and Switzerlands Belair) are going to codeshare routes across their networks. Air Berlin has already announced that is moving its Dubai service to Abu Dhabi to take advantage of the enhanced connectivity that its new partner provides. We can expect Etihad to benefit as well from Air Berlin's European network at the other end of the route.
Austria's Niki and Switzerland's Belair are also going to join forces with Eithad,a s they are part of the Air Berlin group
What this means, in effect, is that Lufthansa's long haul operation is going to be facing a larger passenger drain towards the emerging Gulf hub. Plus Air Berlin-Etihad have also the opportunity to develop an alternative German hub at Berlin's new airport, possibly not a coincidence that, in what looks like a preventive move, Lufthansa has recently announced plans to create a base in the German capital, an airport where it had had a very limited presence so far. It remains unclear whether this situation is going to affect Air Berlin's recent membership of Oneworld.
And it is precisely Oneworld who could be facing a similar situation in one of its home markets if Qatar Airways acquisition of Spanair is finally confirmed. As I write these lines the outcome of this negotiation is uncertain, although a deal must be closed soon as Spanair seems to be running out of cash.
As I mentioned a few days ago, Qatar Airways would have its European beachhead, and, as in Berlin's case, it would be able to use a large brand-new airport with plenty of spare capacity to expand its European feeder operation.
Most important, and hence the title of this post, getting new entrants with access to a seemingly unlimited amounts of capital could significantly alter the competitive landscape (or distort it, depending on how you look at it)...which makes me think doesn't all this seem resemble what has happened with that other glamorous but chronically loss-making European industry:...football?