Government aid for Brazil's airlines shrinks, while Panama's Copa shrugs off bailout

RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Stress has been mounting for Latin American airlines as carriers brace for a slow recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, but Brazil’s government on Thursday reduced the loan aid available for carriers, while Panama’s Copa Airlines said it did not need a bailout.

FILE PHOTO: Copa Airlines' plane is pictured at Tocumen International Aiport after the company said it will suspend all operations in order to weather the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) crisis, in Panama City, Panama March 21, 2020. REUTERS/Erick Marciscano

“We’re not requesting nor are we expecting any aid from the government,” Copa Chief Executive Pedro Heilbron told analysts on Thursday. “I think the government has bigger issues to deal with.”

In Brazil, a source familiar with government discussions said that the country’s BNDES state bank had shrunk by a third the loan aid available for Brazil’s top three carriers to 6 billion reais ($1.03 billion).

The Brazil CEOs for carriers Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes GOLL4.SA, LATAM Airlines Group LTM.SN and Azul SA AZUL.N have pushed for government loans that they see as essential. They had been hoping for 3 billion reais in available aid for each company within Brazil.

The contrast in messaging between Copa and Brazil’s carriers highlight the differences in their financial health. While Copa could have distributed a dividend this year, flying in Brazil almost always leads to a loss for its airlines.

But there is an extra wrinkle in Brazil, the source said. LATAM Airlines Group is in line for aid but is headquartered in Chile, which has created obstacles.

“They have many problems and complexities as they’re in several jurisdictions,” the source said. “It’s not easy.”

LATAM is the continent’s largest airline and operates in many countries in South America, but complications in its Brazil negotiations could leave it without aid in its single largest market.

At the same time, LATAM is forging closer ties with Delta Air Lines Inc DAL.N with the formalization of a joint-venture agreement announced on Thursday night.

LATAM declined to comment.

Gol and Azul are Brazil-based and operate just a handful of international flights.

The 6 billion reais available in Brazil do not include a separate negotiation with planemaker Embraer SA EMBR3.SA, which is seeking up to $1.5 billion in government aid after a long-awaited deal with Boeing Co BA.N unraveled last month.

In Panama, Copa has reinforced its liquidity privately, most recently with a $350 million bond offering in late April, part of a plan to build a “fortress” of cash,” Heilbron said.

It added it was planning to retire early its fleet of 14 older Boeing 737-700 NG planes, the latest carrier to do away with planes due to the coronavirus crisis.

Copa said it would focus on a leaner fleet composed mainly of its Boeing 737-800 NG planes instead.

Copa also has six Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes, but those have been grounded worldwide since last year, after two deadly crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun and Rodrigo Viga Gaier; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney