Etihad goes shopping in Europe

The latest purchase (rebranding included). Picture:  Etihad Airways

The latest purchase (rebranding included). Picture: Etihad Airways

It's been quite a while since the last time I was in Belgrade ( I remember that was my last flight with Spanair before it ceased operations!) but it's now time to shift attention to that part of the World, because something akin to an earthquake has (metaphorically) shaken the usually quiet Serbian airline industry.

Looks like deep-pocketed Etihad is on its way to bail out a handful of struggling European airlines: first was an equity stake in Aer Lingus, then Air Berlin, to follow with a 49% stake (the maximum allowed to non-EU airline investors) in struggling former-Yugoslavian, and now Serbian flag-carrier, JAT Airways, to be soon renamed and rebranded as Air Serbia (a very smart move in my opinion).

It might not be the last: there are talks of Etihad is in talks to buy a significant stake in, also struggling, Polish airline LOT (thanks for the tip, Ivo!).

It's easy to see the advantages for chronically loss-making uncompetitive airlines and for their governments, that can unload a problem in the making onto someone else, but...what does Etihad make of this puzzle of different European airlines?

It can not have total control (unless there are major changes to the laws that regulate airline ownership), neither do I see much in the way of long-range network feeding that could not be achieved directly by Etihad flying directly from Abu Dhabi. Even if Belgrade or Warsaw could be used as staging posts to funnel passengers onto Etiahds long haul network via Abu Dhabi, this woud entail at least two stopovers.

Or is Etihad simply using its deep pockets to "buy" scale quickly by buying targets of opportunity that can give it a very prominent position in certain European markets. Look for example at the acquisition of Air Berlin's "topbonus" frequent flier programme (foreign ownership rules do not apply to frequent flier programmes apparently) with information on millions of German frequent travellers, an important marketing asset for an airline that has so far kept a slightly lower profile when it comes to brand recognition when compared with the other two Gulf mega-carriers, Emirates and Qatar Airways.

 More interestingly, could Etihad, through its minority shareholdings, engineer some sort of pan-European partnership that made all these carriers cooperate with each other or made them operate in concert?