Two US airlines cut China routes as Beijing rivals turn up heat

American Airlines, the largest US carrier by passengers, said it would drop a route between Chicago and Shanghai. (Reuters)
Updated 22 August 2018
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Two US airlines cut China routes as Beijing rivals turn up heat

  • ‘The two China routes ... have been colossal loss makers for us’
  • Chinese passengers arriving at US airports are expected to nearly triple to 12.8 million in 2024 from 4.3 million this year

DENVER/SHANGHAI: Two US airlines on Tuesday cut routes between China and the US, underscoring increasingly tough competition from state-backed Chinese rivals as they aggressively expand their fleets with cut-price tickets.
American Airlines, the largest US carrier by passengers, said it would drop a route between Chicago and Shanghai, canceling the second direct flight from the US city to China in four months. It had canceled a flight to Beijing in May, although it still operates daily flights to the capital from Los Angeles and Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas.
“The two China routes ... have been colossal loss makers for us,” said Vasu Raja, vice president of network and schedule planning, adding that high fuel costs had also made the route unsustainable.
Hawaiian Airlines said it would from October suspend its thrice-weekly nonstop service between Honolulu and Beijing, which it opened in 2014, citing slower-than-expected growth in demand.
Competition from Chinese airlines is expected to grow with the anticipated easing of China’s near-decade-old “one route, one airline” policy, which would allow more local airlines to fly long-haul international routes.
“US airlines are at a severe disadvantage,” said Mike Boyd, president of aviation forecaster Boyd Group. “The majority of demand is China-generated, and that gives Chinese carriers the advantage.”
Chinese passengers arriving at US airports are expected to nearly triple to 12.8 million in 2024 from 4.3 million this year, and the profile is shifting from groups to independent travelers, according to Boyd Group.
United Airlines President Scott Kirby said Shanghai and Beijing had rebounded for the airline after several years of weakness, although revenue per available seat mile (RASM) was below levels of two or three years ago.
“We’ve had several years of weakness as there was an awful lot of capacity growth out of Beijing and Shanghai,” Kirby said on the sidelines of the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Denver.
American and Hawaiian said the route cancelations were unrelated to demands placed by China’s civil aviation regulator on foreign airlines to amend the way they referred to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan on their websites.
Chinese state media had earlier this month singled out the two companies and other US airlines as being among the last firms to comply with China’s demands.
“That issue of how Taiwan was displayed on our website had absolutely zero impact on this decision,” Hawaiian’s chief executive, Peter Ingram, said. “Our economic evaluation was well underway long before that issue arose.”


Abu Dhabi said to study restructuring options for $1.2bn Etihad-linked bonds

Updated 19 September 2018
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Abu Dhabi said to study restructuring options for $1.2bn Etihad-linked bonds

  • Bonds issued through SPV with other airlines
  • Etihad asks Abu Dhabi government for help

DUBAI: The government of Abu Dhabi is looking at proposals to restructure some $1.2 billion of troubled bonds that were issued by Abu Dhabi state-owned carrier Etihad Airways in partnership with other airlines, sources familiar with the matter said.
Etihad issued $700 million of bonds through a special purpose vehicle (SPV) called Equity Alliance Partners (EAP) in 2015, and $500 million in 2016. Proceeds of the paper went to Etihad and other airlines it partially owned at the time, including Alitalia and Air Berlin, which are now both insolvent.
The notes were seen as strengthening Etihad's partnerships with those airlines after it spent billions of dollars in acquisitions.
The EAP bonds have been trading at a significant discount for over a year, however, after Alitalia entered special administration and Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy.
Etihad has no legal responsibility to bail out the portion of the bonds which benefited the two European airlines as the notes have no cross-default provision.
But with over $500 million of the paper held by United Arab Emirates investors, it has asked the Abu Dhabi Department of Finance to find a way to reduce losses for investors and limit any damage to the reputation of the local debt market, sources familiar with the matter said.
The department is now working with a financial adviser to find restructuring solutions, said the sources. One option being discussed could involve adjusting the structure of the paper to obtain a better credit rating. Rating agency Fitch has been involved in some of the discussions, the sources said.
Etihad declined to comment while a spokesman for the Abu Dhabi Department of Finance did not respond to a request for comment. Fitch declined to comment.
Any type of restructuring would require bondholders’ approval.
Etihad agreed to cover Alitalia’s portion of the debt, equivalent to around $230 million, at maturity through an agreement between the airlines which was signed before Alitalia entered special administration. But Air Berlin’s portion, of roughly the same amount, has no such guarantee.
Any intervention by the Abu Dhabi government, which could materialise before the end of this year, might see Abu Dhabi inject around $200-300 million into the issuing vehicle, said the sources.
This amount would be applied towards a partial early redemption of the notes at a discount of around 15 percent to par value for note holders seeking an early exit, the sources said. That would imply a write-off of Air Berlin’s obligation under the structure, while Alitalia’s debt would be honoured.
Creditors unwilling to exit at a discount might swap their notes into new instruments with a higher credit rating. The notes could feature a credit enhancement in the form of a guarantee of the obligations of Air Serbia and Air Seychelles, which are part of the borrowing structure, the sources said.
The first tranche of the notes, due 2020, is rated CC by Fitch, while the second tranche due 2021 is rated C.
With an Abu Dhabi intervention, the notes would become investment grade because of the oil-rich emirate's strong credit profile, so any capital injection by the government could be partially offset by a reduction in interest payments.
Last month, the SPV said it received a bid of just over $4 million in cash for the debt obligations of Alitalia and Air Berlin across the two EAP bond tranches.
The bid included around $6 million that would become payable to the SPV in case of recovery of an equivalent amount from the obligations, and a payment of 60 percent of money recovered after a 35 percent recovery threshold was reached.
The bid had an expiry date of Aug. 31; the SPV asked the bidder to extend the deadline to give note holders time to review terms. Since then, the SPV has given no update on the bidding process.