The end is nigh for airberlin. After years of being kept alive on life support thanks to Etihad’s free-flowing money, it’s all over. On October 28, airberlin will disappear as a brand, and all that’s left to figure out is who gets to pick up the most desirable pieces. Lufthansa has a deal for the pieces it wants, though there are some competition concerns. Meanwhile, easyJet continues to sniff around to see if there’s anything left worth taking.
It was widely expected that Lufthansa would be the winner here, and well, it was. Lufthansa is reportedly going to pay 210 million euros for, well, I guess I’m not entirely sure. I do know with certainty that Lufthansa will buy two of airberlin’s subsidiaries along with their aircraft, but those airplanes seem to move around like some sort of shell game so it’s hard to keep track. Here’s my best guess as to what’s happening.
Formally known as Luftfahrtgesellschaft Walter mbH (which is loosely translated to Walter Airlines), it’s no wonder this airline uses an acronym. LGW was bought by airberlin a few years ago and it served as a turboprop operator with what I thought to be 20 Q400 aircraft. According to this release, however, Lufthansa will take 17 Q400s and there will be another 13 A320 aircraft transferred in from airberlin. All LGW employees will come along as well. So that’s 30 airplanes.
Niki, which gets it name from its founder/race car driver Niki Lauda, will also be going to Lufthansa. Niki is primarily an Austrian leisure airline, though airberlin made it do all kinds of different things along the way. Etihad was supposed to buy airberlin’s stake in Niki and then create a joint venture with leisure airline TUIfly, but that whole plan fell apart. Now Lufthansa will take over its 20 A320 family (I think all A321?) aircraft. That makes 50.
After those 50 airplanes, I get more confused. Lufthansa says that “the wet-lease operation that is currently still provided for Eurowings by Air Berlin Group will be taken over by Eurowings’ own operational fleet.” At last check, there were supposed to be 33 wet-leased aircraft flying for Eurowings and another 5 for Austrian. If we assume that 5 for Austrian go away, then that would give us a total of 83 airplanes. But Lufthansa keeps saying there will be 81 aircraft. I’ve seen elsewhere say that it will just be the fleets of Niki and LGW plus 20 more A320 family airberlin airplanes (which would be 61, I think). I reached out to Lufthansa for clarity, but I didn’t hear back.
I suppose the specifics of that don’t entirely matter. What is clear is that Lufthansa is going to take about half of airberlin’s fleet and 3,000 of 8,500 employees. What does Lufthansa want with this? Well, it is trying to cobble together this monstrous patchwork operation it calls Eurowings by pretty much just picking any pieces it finds desirable and stapling them on. Niki can further bolster Lufthansa Group’s stranglehold in Austria. The Q400s can probably be peppered in wherever Lufthansa needs the lift in smaller markets. And the other Airbuses will help Lufthansa expand its presence in other German markets.
Remember, the Lufthansa strategy articulated a couple years back was to effectively shrink Lufthansa itself to serve only Frankfurt and Munich. All the other German cities, starting with Cologne/Bonn, would see their service replaced by Eurowings.
Airberlin’s strongest presence was in Berlin and Dusseldorf, so Lufthansa can effectively accelerate the strategy it already started by picking up airplanes and waving goodbye to its biggest competitor.
Of course, this deal isn’t done yet. It still has to pass a competition review. Lufthansa said it was only acquiring half the airplanes from airberlin, because that was the most competition authorities would allow. But that’s not stopping others from showing their displeasure.
Ryanair has complained that this would give Lufthansa a near monopoly on the domestic German market. That’s probably true, but Lufthansa says it’s not about Germany but rather all of Europe.
In Dusseldorf, for example, airberlin was responsible for 7.5 million of the airport’s 23.5 million passengers in 2016. Lufthansa/Germanwings/Eurowings/Sun Express handled 7.2 million. Lufthansa will still have the lion’s share there, but it’s not the same level of complete dominance that you’ll find domestically. That’s because you have airlines like Condor and TUIfly doing heavy leisure flying along with some big metal from Emirates and others flying long-haul. It makes it look like more balanced than it really is.
It’s not just Germany, however. The Austrian government is making some noise about how much of Austria will be controlled by Lufthansa Group after the Niki takeover. In 2016, Austrian/Lufthansa/Eurowings was responsible for over 55 percent of the total traffic in Vienna. airberlin and Niki made up 10.9 percent. The next biggest airline was easyJet with a paltry 2.7 percent.
Though I have no actual visibility into this, my guess is that there will be some concessions required for this to go through. Then again, it may also depend on what easyJet ends up doing. That airline has been in negotiations to pick up as many as 30 A320s and the ability to expand in congested markets like Berlin. At last check, easyJet had lowered its bid and it was unclear if there would be any kind of deal. If so, that would ease competitive concerns.