Deal-hungry Qatar Airways aims to create virtual mega-carrier

File photo of a Qatar Airways aircraft on a runway of the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens
FILE PHOTO A Qatar Airways aircraft is seen at a runway of the Eleftherios Venizelos International Airport in Athens, Greece, May 16, 2016. REUTERS/Alkis Konstantinidis/File Photo

November 7, 2017

By Jamie Freed

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Qatar Airways wants to create a virtual mega-carrier that will benefit from economies of scale in negotiations on fuel and aircraft purchases while it boosts investment in other airlines, its chief executive said on Tuesday.

The Qatari carrier announced a $661 million deal on Monday to buy a 9.61 percent stake in Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways <0293.HK> to broaden its reach and potentially allow the oneworld alliance member to increase traffic through its Doha hub.

“Frankly, I wish I could buy more. But the Swire Group and Air China hold most of it and I’m the third-largest shareholder, which is not bad,” Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker said at the CAPA Asia Summit in Singapore, referring to Cathay’s biggest stakeholders.

Qatar Airways has been unable to fly to the previously lucrative markets of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia because of an airspace rights dispute, prompting investment elsewhere.

Al Baker said the airline expects to report a loss in the financial year to March 31, 2018, as a result of the blockade.

The airline has acquired 20 percent of British Airways parent International Consolidated Airlines Group <ICAG.L>, 10 percent of South America’s LATAM Airlines Group <LTM.SN> and 49 percent of Italy’s Meridiana.

Al Baker said that Qatar Airways wants shareholdings to be exchanged between itself and its portfolio airlines as it seeks to become a virtual mega-carrier.

“I see a lot of synergies we could bring as a group,” he said, referring to savings to be gained from the envisaged increase in bargaining power.

“I hope that one day in the not too distant future we all, these four groups, get together and exchange shareholdings in each other so that we will become a real mega-carrier. That is something that some people have tried, but not successfully.”

Etihad Airways has pulled back from a strategy of taking minority stakes in other airlines after struggling European carriers Alitalia and Air Berlin entered administration.

Association of Asia Pacific Airlines Director General Andrew Herdman said the history of airlines owning minority stakes in other carriers is mixed.

“It remains to be seen what influence you can exert as a minority shareholder,” he said during a panel discussion at the conference.

“You have the added complication that in Cathay Pacific, Air China is a significant shareholder. And Cathay Pacific is a significant shareholder in Air China.”

Swire Pacific <0019.HK> is Cathay’s biggest shareholder with 45 percent followed by Air China <601111.SS> with 30 percent. Cathay also owns about 18 percent of Air China.

(Reporting by Jamie Freed; Writing by Miyoung Kim; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman and David Goodman)