| ABU DHABI
ABU DHABI Etihad Airways' Chief Executive said talks to pick an equity stake in struggling Italian carrier Alitalia could swing either way, as the Gulf airline entered into the final phase of due diligence for the investment.
Etihad, which is leading a global acquisition drive, is looking to deepen its network in Europe after taking a stake in Air Berlin (AB1.DE) in 2011 and entering into a strategic code-share deal with Air France-KLM (AIRF.PA).
But the Gulf airline is not hurrying into a deal with Alitalia, which is struggling with its more than 800 million euro ($1.1 billion) debt and growing competition.
Asked in an interview how confident he was at this stage of the deal going through, James Hogan said: "It's 50-50."
"We had also entered into due diligence with other airlines in the past and walked away."
Hogan said the deal could only go ahead if Alitalia met Etihad's criteria on costs, profitability, restructuring, the airline's network and strong management. He did not provide further details.
Talks between the airlines intensified last month and sources close to the matter said Etihad might be interested in buying a stake of up to 40 percent in the Italian carrier.
A deal with the Italian airline will allow the Etihad access into Europe's fourth-largest travel market. For Alitalia, this would bring in resources it needs to invest in a new strategy based on long-haul routes.
Sources have said Etihad wants heavy restructuring of Alitalia's debt and was also asking for job cuts at the Italian airline.
"I have not commented on job cuts," Hogan said when asked if job cuts were needed at Alitalia.
The airline posted a 48 percent leap in 2013 profit and predicted more growth this year, on the back of its equity alliance strategy.
The Gulf carrier, which carried nearly 12 million passengers last year, will receive $2 billion in financing from banks to fund the delivery of about 19 new jets that will join the fleet this year, James Rigney, chief financial officer of Etihad Airways told reporters.
Etihad is in the final phase of due diligence on its possible investment Alitalia, Hogan told reporters at a press conference later in the day.
"But we are not committed in any form to invest or not," he added.
Hogan recently met the senior management team of Alitalia and the minister of transport and minister of finance.
"They are clear about what we expect as investors. We are working through the process, we have to be convinced as investors that the airline will be profitable."
The unlisted Etihad has made a series of acquisitions over the last few years, taking minority equity stakes in Virgin Australia (VAH.AX) and Aer Lingus AERL.I and raising its shareholding in Air Berlin and Air Seychelles.
Hogan said Etihad could increase its stake in Virgin Australia (VAH.AX) by a further 3 to 6 percentage points over the next six months. Currently it has a stake of about 20 percent.
The Gulf carrier also plans about three or four code-sharing deals this year, in which it would share flights with other airlines. But Hogan ruled out joining any global alliances like its rival Qatar Airways, which joined the Oneworld alliance last year.
(Editing by Andrew Torchia and Louise Heavens)