German carrier Lufthansa recently got the go-ahead from the EU Commission to purchase Austrian Airlines, but maybe it will have reason to re-think its decision in a few months. After all, Austrian recently reported a 78.5 million Euro ($113 million) loss between April and June, and has lost 166.6 million Euros ($239.8 million) for the first half of the year. Lufthansa, on the other hand, managed to obtain an operating profit of 8 million euros ($11.5 million) from January to June, although it also posted a net loss of 216 million euros ($311 million). The EU Commission has approved the takeover, and although a final decision is expected in a couple of weeks, the deal's pretty much as good as done. Of course, Lufthansa had to make some concessions in order to avoid running afoul of the European antitrust policies, giving up some prime take-off and landing slots at Vienna's airport.
Some remain optimistic about Lufthansa's financial future. "We remain optimistic from a mid-term perspective," said one analyst. "Lufthansa has impressively demonstrated that it is able to reach a small profit even in a disastrous environment." "Based on its superior financial strength and its anti-cyclical approach to acquisitions, we expect Lufthansa to emerge as a long-term winner from the current global economic crisis," said another. Yet it's clear that in the short term, Lufthansa faces some serious struggles; not only does it have to cope with the weak demand for travel, but also the purchases of Austrian, bmi, and Brussels Airlines. Austrian, for its part, has been quickly racking up debt - almost two billion euros of it, which is over five times its equity.
Still, Lufthansa apparently thinks that it can turn around Austrian and make it profitable. And while this isn't an unrealistic expectation (and it helps that a new cost-cutting program was introduced at Austrian last week), this particular acquisition poses some interesting challenges. Two of Lufthansa's earlier purchases, Swiss and Brussels Airlines, are relatively new airlines, having been formed in the past decade. They were both created out of the ashes/assets of two historic but loss-making carriers, Swissair and Sabena, which both failed in 2002. This allowed Lufthansa to take over some choice assets without dealing with the incredible debt burden that caused the two airlines to collapse.
Austrian, as I mentioned before, has almost two euros in debt, and that number isn't likely to shrink anytime soon. A 200 million euro government bailout earlier this year is the only thing keeping the airline afloat, and it's already burned through two-thirds of that cash. Niki Lauda, founder of Austrian subsidiary Lauda Air and now founder of budget airline flyniki, has claimed that the deal is the "biggest catastrophe [for Austria] since World War II." "It takes no skill to give away an airline and then still pay 500 million euros on top of that," he said, referring to the fact that the Austrian government has agreed to absorb a third of Austrian's debt.
Still, Lauda got some good slots at Vienna thanks to the deal, so he can't be all that upset. And Lufthansa, if it manages to get Austrian's house back in order, could end up profiting from Austrian's extensive Southern and Eastern European route network. So it will take quite a bit of work, but that's something that Lufthansa and its CEO, himself a native Austrian, is willing to put forth.