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Pilots ground Air Berlin flights as bid deadline nears

About 100 flights cancelled after pilot absences; Exec: stable operations needed as investor talks continue

Image Credit: Reuters
Airberlin aircraft at Tegel airport in Berlin. About 100 flights had been cancelled by late morning.
Gulf News

BERLIN: Insolvent Air Berlin cancelled about 100 flights on Tuesday after pilots called in sick in unusually high numbers, potentially hampering an attempt to find investors to rescue Germany’s second-largest airline.

Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy protection last month after its biggest shareholder, Etihad Airways, withdrew funding following years of losses. Potential investors have until Sept. 15 to submit binding offers for the German airline.

“We must return to stable operations. That is crucial in order to bring talks with investors to a successful conclusion,” Chief Operations Officer Oliver Iffert said in an internal memo.

“Today is a day that threatens the existence of Air Berlin.” About 100 flights had been cancelled by late Tuesday morning after 200 Air Berlin pilots called in sick. Some short-haul flights at Lufthansa’s budget airline Eurowings were also hit because it leases 33 planes with crews from Air Berlin.

An industry source said Air Berlin could lose 4 million to 5 million euros a day because of the cancellations.

Pilots union Vereinigung Cockpit (VC) said it was surprised by the absences and that it had not called on its members at Air Berlin to call in sick.

In a similar incident last year, German leisure airline TUIfly was forced to cancel flights after cockpit and cabin crew called in sick. The union Verdi, which represents cabin staff, said then its members were concerned that merger talks, which have since failed, could lead to job and pay cuts.

While a German government loan is helping keep Air Berlin alive, the carrier has also been forced to scrap some long-haul destinations from Sept. 25. Iffert said in the memo seen by Reuters that this was because a leasing company will no longer provide Air Berlin with 10 long-haul planes.

Germany’s biggest airline, Lufthansa, is seen in pole position to acquire large parts of its rival and a decision on the bids come could as early as Sept. 21, three days before a national election.

One source has told Reuters that Lufthansa is interested in as many as 90 of Air Berlin’s planes. That number includes the 33 being used by Eurowings, five already leased to Lufthansa’s Austrian Airlines as well as planes used by Air Berlin subsidiary Niki, the source said.

Thomas Cook’s German carrier Condor is preparing a bid for parts of Air Berlin, another source said, while media reports say easyJet may want up to 40 planes.

Aviation investor Hans Rudolf Woehrl said he had submitted a bid for the whole of Air Berlin while German family-owned logistics company Zeitfracht has also expressed an interest.

Ryanair said on Tuesday that Air Berlin could be of interest to the Irish low-cost carrier but it didn’t want to wait until after Lufthansa had finished talks.

BOX — Turkey’s Pegasus Plans Major Base at New Istanbul Airport (1)

London

Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines plans to establish a major base at the new Istanbul airport scheduled to open late next year, helping the discount specialist to attract passengers from the European side of the city where state-owned rival Turkish Airlines currently dominates.

Pegasus is likely to station a “considerable fleet” at the airport after a third runway opens in about 2020, Chief Commercial Officer Guliz Ozturk said in an interview. While the as-yet-unnamed hub will cater to 90 million travellers a year, rising to as many as 150 million, the airline hasn’t until now said it will have a significant presence, suggesting in 2014 that it wasn’t keen to fly there.

Pegasus currently bases almost 60 aircraft at Istanbul’s secondary Sabiha Gokcen airport on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, where the catchment totals about 8 million people, compared with 10 million on the European side, Ozturk said. It has no planes located at the city’s main Ataturk hub, the home base of Turkish Air, which is set to close once the new facility is fully operational. “We plan to fly both domestically and internationally out of the new airport if we can get the slots and infrastructure,” Ozturk said in London.

-Bloomberg

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