Thomas Cook is one of the most storied names in European travel, but it has not been doing well financially. Now the company is looking to sell off its airlines to prop up the rest of the group, and Lufthansa is one of the interested bidders. Could an acquisition be the answer to Lufthansa’s prayers? Probably not, but you know, it also couldn’t hurt if the price is right.
This may sound strange to Americans since tour operators just aren’t quite this big here, but Thomas Cook is a British operator that generated an impressive GBP 10 billion (~US$13.1 billion) in revenue last year serving more than 19 million customers. It has been around since the 1800s and came to its current state as a result of several mergers and acquisitions through the years. The company has two main divisions – the tour operator and the airlines.
There are currently four separate airlines under the company’s umbrella.
- Condor operates from German bases (Frankfurt is the largest) to leisure destinations in the Mediterranean, Africa, and the Americas. It has 16 Airbus narrowbodies, 15 757-300s, and 16 767-300s in the fleet.
- Thomas Cook Airlines has its main bases at London/Gatwick and Manchester, but it also flies from other UK cities to leisure destinations. It is primarily a short-haul operator with more than 30 Airbus narrowbodies, but it does have 7 A330s for longer routes.
- Thomas Cook Balearics flies 6 A320s from a base in Palma de Mallorca to spots around Europe. Presumably this is an effort to get a lower-cost operation down there instead of basing those planes in higher cost places in the north.
- Thomas Cook Scandinavia flies 8 A321s and 5 A330s from Scandinavia to warm weather cities primarily in the Mediterranean.
In a strange twist, these airlines seem to be performing well. It’s the rest of the Thomas Cook business that’s suffering. And to keep the rest of the business viable, Thomas Cook thinks it needs to raise some cash. Selling the profitable airline operation appears to be the path forward.
So, who wants to buy an airline… or four? Well, Virgin Atlantic is apparently interested in the Thomas Cook Airlines long-haul business. That could complement the existing Virgin business well. Indigo Partners has expressed interest in at least some of the company. That’s the same company that owns Wizz and Frontier, among others. It’s also the one that almost bought WOW before that airline collapsed. It’s not clear what pieces Indigo wants and what it would actually do with it, but Indigo is always sniffing around something. Rumors suggest that easyJet may want to take a swing at this too. But the most concrete expression of interest so far is from Lufthansa Group with a focus on Condor.
There is a complicated history here. Lufthansa used to own various stakes in Condor over the years, and the airlines continue to interline and sell through fares on each other today. Even though there hasn’t been a financial connection since Lufthansa sold the last of its shares to Thomas Cook in 2009, there is still this spiritual connection. I should also note that while the main interest is in Condor, Lufthansa would consider other parts of the company.
The question is… what exactly would Lufthansa do with Condor? Well, the first thing it would probably do is throw it into the jumbled mess that is Eurowings and then cut capacity.
Eurowings, you may remember, is Lufthansa Group’s frankenbaby of a “low” cost operator. (Yes, I put that in quotes for a reason.) In the last 5 years, Eurowings morphed from being a regional jet operator into an amalgamation of pretty much anything that Lufthansa owned that doesn’t touch Zurich, Vienna, Munich, or Frankfurt. That includes:
- Acquired 10 new A320s and 13 from Lufthansa to replace the regional jets most to serve secondary cities in Germany
- SunExpress Deutschland was brought in to operate A330s under the Eurowings brand also from secondary German cities
- Merged in the old Germanwings low cost operation under the Eurowings brand
- LGW flies Q400s (soon to be replaced by Embraer 190s) for Eurowings – it was bought by Lufthansa from the airberlin bankruptcy but now it has already flipped to another owner
- Brussels Airlines is being merged into Eurowings operationally but it will keep its own public brand
I think there’s more, but frankly I’ve lost track. All I do know is that this monster is a huge money loser. How bad? Eurowings had a -32 percent operating margin in the first quarter of this year. Sure, first quarter is generally weak, but -32 percent weak? Yikes.
What’s Eurowings problem besides simply being a dumping ground for wayward airlines? It has many. But one of the big problems is that there’s a lot of short-haul capacity within Europe that’s depressing yields. Buying Condor would certainly give Lufthansa the ability to pare capacity on leisure routes within Europe and make Germany, at least, perform better. That would help offset the massive amount of capacity that raced in to fill the void airberlin left when it failed.
The other problem is that Eurowings is really bad at long-haul. The company has shifted strategies a few times, and the news one is to move away from flying long-haul in secondary German markets and go into Frankfurt and Munich instead. That’s happening this year. In other words, it’s going to try to do what Condor already does well.
Condor has aging 767s that will still last for some time, but Eurowings would probably like to find a way to place its A330s on to routes that might have a shot at making money. As a replacement for the Condor 767s, that might make sense.
The process is just beginning here, and there will be several suitors wanting various different pieces of the company. For Lufthansa, anything that helps reduce capacity will help Eurowings lose less money. It’s not going to suddenly make the airline profitable, but if the price is right, then it wouldn’t be a bad move.