Decrying 'stitch-up', Ryanair won't bid for Air Berlin assets

BERLIN (Reuters) - Ryanair RYA.I will not bid for any assets of insolvent German airline Air Berlin AB1.DE, its Chief Executive Michael O'Leary said on Wednesday, describing the process as "a stitch-up".

Air Berlin, Germany’s second-largest airline, filed for bankruptcy protection this month after shareholder Etihad Airways withdrew funding following years of losses.

O'Leary, the head of the Irish budget airline, has complained that the insolvency process was designed to help strengthen leading German airline Lufthansa LHAG.DE. [nL8N1L84X7]

“If there was a fair and open process we would get involved but we are not getting involved in this process because it’s a stitch-up,” he told a news conference in Berlin on Wednesday, adding Ryanair had not been in contact with anyone from the German government, Air Berlin or the administrator.

Taking his argument directly to Berlin, he said Ryanair had asked German and European anti-trust authorities to investigate what he said was a “conspiracy” between Air Berlin, Lufthansa and the German government which would lead to higher prices for consumers.

“(The insolvency process) is designed to deliver Air Berlin to Lufthansa sometime in the middle of September before the German election,” he said.

Germany’s economy ministry has previously rejected Ryanair’s claims that the insolvency was staged. It has also said a bridging loan of 150 million euros ($180 million) the government had granted Air Berlin did not breach anti-trust rules. [nL8N1L238C]

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Bidders for Air Berlin’s assets are racing to submit offers by a Sept. 15 deadline, with around 140 leased aircraft and valuable take-off and landing slots in Germany up for grabs.

Germany holds a national election on Sept. 24.

Lufthansa, which has the German government’s backing to take over major parts of Air Berlin, could acquire as many as 90 of its planes, including 38 aircraft it is already leasing from the airline and its leisure unit Niki, a source told Reuters this month.

Britain's easyJet EZJ.L and Thomas Cook's TCG.L Condor could split the rest of the fleet between them, media reports have said, with easyJet interested in up to 40 planes and Condor a double-figure number.

Former motor racing driver Niki Lauda has expressed interest in buying back leisure unit Niki, which he founded, and aviation investor Hans Rudolf Woehrl wants all of Air Berlin.

Air Berlin is being kept in the air thanks to the government loan, which it has said would last for up to three months.

($1 = 0.8398 euros)

Reporting by Caroline Copley and Klaus Lauer; Writing by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Georgina Prodhan/Keith Weir