The acquisition of Portugal by Brazilian conglomerate Synergy Group will not be the biggest transaction ever among international airlines, but it could be one of the most significant: For the first time, a European flag carrier could be fully owned by a non-European investor.
Synergy Group, which emerged as the only remaining bidder for TAP Portugal last month, is entering final negotiations with the Portuguese government over the purchase price, among other things. Portugal agreed to sell TAP along with other state-owned companies last year as part of an EU bailout that kept government finances from collapsing. Synergy plans to integrate TAP into its growing portfolio of airlines that also includes AviancaTACA, Aerogal and Ocean Air (nowBrazil), as well as some smaller operations.
As significant as the acquisition by a Latin American investor would be, another striking aspect of the deal is who has decided not to invest. None of the European majors bid for TAP, which has a vast network into Latin America, particularly Brazil.and International Airlines Group (IAG), parent of and , are understood to have considered it but backed off, likely because they do not have money to spend on acquisitions these days.
The potential deal is also a sign of how economic power is shifting in the industry to players that were not on the global radar screen even a few years ago. There has been European investment in the Latin American airline industry—as in the case of Grupo Marsans and now-state owned Aerolineas Argentinas—but this time the roles are swapped.
In another deal, HNA Group acquired a 48% stake in Aigle Azur, a small French airline operating a limited network mostly to North Africa as well as charters. HNA is the parent of Hainan Airlines, China's fourth-largest carrier. As a consequence of the investment, Aigle Azur plans to add twoto its fleet of 13 -family aircraft and launch Paris-Beijing services next year. HNA has explored other investments in Europe, including now defunct Malev Hungarian Airlines and . In Ghana, it set up Africa World Airlines, which started flying in September.
However, it is highly unlikely that outside investors will fill the void that Europeans are creating by holding back on takeovers, so consolidation is also coming in other forms. Swiss charter airline Hello was the last victim in a growing number of airline failures this year, along with those of Spanair and Malev.
Synergy Group is emerging as one of the relatively new players shaping the airline industry in Latin America and now also in Europe. Run by brothers German and Jose Efromovich, it has become a large infrastructure provider in the oil and gas industry. German Efromovich discovered his passion for aviation and acquired Brazilian carrier Ocean Air initially, but that was only the start of his investment in the sector. He bought Avianca Colombia out of bankruptcy in 2004 and was one of the driving forces behind its merger with Grupo TACA in early 2010, in which Synergy holds a 60% stake. Synergy's Aerogal in Ecuador will also be rebranded and fly, like TACA and its affiliates, as Avianca soon.
Avianca is emerging as the second-largest airline group in Latin America behind the newly formed Latam Group, created through the merger ofand TAM Airlines.
But linking up networks with TAP will require more effort than might be expected. TAP's Latin American network is focused on Brazil, where the Synergy Group's exposure is limited to Ocean Air. Both AviancaTACA's base, at Bogota's El Dorado International Airport, and TAP's, at Lisbon Portela Airport, are capacity constrained, despite the fact that Bogota just opened a new international terminal. But, infrastructure deficiencies aside, the two airports could serve as strengthened gateways once TAP is integrated.
One of the most interesting aspects of the proposed transaction is how it will be implemented legally. After all, the EU limit on foreign ownership is still 49%, and even though there are aspirations to relax restrictions, changes would hinge on international agreements. According to industry sources, Synergy Group already controls a Portuguese air operator certificate. Also, Efromovich reportedly holds a Polish passport in addition to his Bolivian one, enabling him to act as an EU citizen. Efromovich could not be reached for comment.
The planned takeover is also welcome news for the, which is facing the exit of TAM Brazil as a result of its merger with LAN this year. Chilean antitrust authorities requested that TAM Brazil make the move within two years of the merger's closing. Star could retain access to Brazil if TAM opts to stay out of LAN's Oneworld. While the Colombian economy is rebounding as the state continues to recover control over security from drug cartels, Avianca cannot fully replace TAM, which is based in the continent's largest air transport market. Also, Bogota's El Dorado Airport is still a bottleneck and needs further upgrades.
Meanwhile, in a domestic situation in Europe that involves no foreign investment, Aegean Airlines has launched another attempt to take over its domestic rival, Olympic Air. The deal, signed Oct. 22, still hinges on regulatory approval.
Both Greek carriers have suffered tremendously from the economic downturn caused by the country's dramatic debt crisis. Greece has been in recession for five years, and demand for air travel has been receding. Aegean is posting big losses but, following serious restructuring, Olympic is close to breakeven.
Aegean has tried to merge with or take over Olympic at least twice. When the former national carrier was privatized in 2009, the government chose a bid by the Marfin Investment Fund over Aegean's. The airlines subsequently reached a preliminary agreement on a merger, but the proposal was blocked in 2011 by the European Commission because it would have led to what was effectively a monopoly on domestic routes.
Almost two years later, the carriers are trying again. They hope new competition in the Greek domestic market from Cyprus Airways will ease antitrust concerns. Also, because the two airlines' combined revenues are less than €2.5 billion ($33 billion), the case would be handled by Greek rather than European competition authorities.
According to industry sources, Olympic would focus on regional and domestic flying, including public service obligation routes to maintain air links to many small Greek islands. Aegean would serve European routes.