Lufthansa to get financial support from Switzerland and Austria

FRANKFURT/ZURICH/VIENNA (Reuters) - Switzerland and Austria pledged to help Lufthansa with state-backed loans as the German airline pursues talks with Berlin over a 9 billion euro ($9.8 billion) rescue package.

FILE PHOTO: Two Lufthansa airbus A380-800 are parked as air traffic is affected by the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Frankfurt, Germany, March 23, 2020. Arne Dedert/Pool via REUTERS

The Swiss government said on Wednesday it will ask parliament for 1.275 billion francs in loan guarantees for Lufthansa LHAG.DE units Swiss and Edelweiss.

Strict travel restrictions to contain the coronavirus pandemic have brought flights to a near-halt across the world and there is no end in sight for when they can restart, leaving many airlines begging governments for rescue packages.

The International Air Transport Association this month estimated that revenue losses from the coronavirus pandemic have risen to $314 billion.

Lufthansa’s Austrian airline AUA said on Tuesday that it had applied for 767 million euros in state aid, of which a large part should be repayable loans and the remainder grants.

An AUA spokesman said these grants were still under negotiation and both Switzerland and Austria attached conditions on their participation in the bailout.

“The funds guaranteed by the Swiss government are only to be used for Swiss infrastructure,” the government said, adding that the loans would be secured by shares in Swiss and Edelweiss.

Dividends or other payments would be forbidden until public assistance has been repaid, it added.

Ahead of a meeting with Lufthansa LHAG.DE boss Carsten Spohr, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said that Austria's government is seeking job guarantees and an assurance that Vienna will remain a transfer hub in return for financial support.

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Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said that in bailouts such as that of Lufthansa Germany would ensure that companies did not pay dividends, while also making sure entrepreneurial freedom was guaranteed and any state involvement limited in time.

A German government source said talks about Lufthansa would continue, but gave no timing.

The question of state influence is tricky for Germany’s coalition government as the conservatives want to leave Lufthansa’s management relatively free of intervention, while the Social Democrats want the state to share ownership in order to influence decision-making and protect employees.

Unions representing pilots, crews and ground staff are demanding job guarantees if Lufthansa gets German taxpayer cash.

While the exact split of the rescue deal is unclear, the combined contribution in loans from all countries participating could be around 6 billion euros, while the equity component may be around 3 billion euros, one person close to the matter said.

The equity element is expected to come as a mix of new shares as well as a non-voting form of capital dubbed “silent participation”, people close to the matter have said.

The pricing of the new shares would likely be similar to that of a rights issue, meaning that Lufthansa would have to grant a steep discount on the new shares, two of the people said. Typically, companies market shares at a discount of around 30% of the theoretical ex rights price in such deals.

The coupon of the silent participation is expected to be higher than 5%, the sources said. It could even be more than 8%, one said, adding that interested payments could be deferred.

Lufthansa declined to comment.

The airline’s CEO Carsten Spohr this month cited cash burn at a rate of 1 million euros per hour, meaning its 4 billion euro cash reserves will be inadequate.

Lufthansa is only carrying 1% of passengers compared with a year ago, while some 100 aircraft of its 760-strong fleet could be idled and 10,000 jobs are in danger, Spohr said last week.

While some airlines in Europe and the United States have secured government help, others such as British Airways parent IAG have said they aim to manage without it.

Additional reporting by Christian Krämer, Andreas Rinke and Ilona Wissenbach; Editing by Alexander Smith