EasyJet grounds fleet as virus pushes airlines to the brink

Easyjet planes are seen parked at Luton airport after Easyjet announced it has grounded its entire fleet, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, Luton, Britain, March 30, 2020. (REUTERS/Matthew Childs)
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Updated 31 March 2020

EasyJet grounds fleet as virus pushes airlines to the brink

  • EasyJet was under additional pressure from its biggest shareholder, Stelios Hajji-Ioannou, who along with his family owns about a third of its shares

LONDON: British budget airline easyJet has grounded its fleet of 344 planes and has no clear idea when it might resume flights, it said on Monday, highlighting the strain on airlines trying to survive the coronavirus pandemic.
EasyJet said it would lay off its 4,000 UK-based cabin crew for two months, meaning they won’t work from April 1 but will get 80 percent of their average pay under a state job retention scheme.
The global health crisis has brought European air travel to a standstill, leaving airlines with no revenue and facing a struggle for survival. Small British airline Loganair, for example, said on Monday that it would seek state support.
Shares in easyJet lost as much as 10 percent in early trading, having halved in value over the last month. The airline now has a market capitalization of about £2.3 billion ($2.9 billion).
“We think the group has enough liquidity to manage a short suspension of European air travel but if the disruption proves prolonged, or the recovery is sluggish, easyJet could be in real trouble,” said Hargreaves Landsdown analyst William Ryder.
EasyJet was under additional pressure from its biggest shareholder, Stelios Hajji-Ioannou, who along with his family owns about a third of its shares.
In a letter to easyJet’s chairman, Hajji-Ioannou said it must cancel or renegotiate a £4.5 billion order for 107 Airbus planes because the extra aircraft would just destroy shareholder value.
EasyJet said it was trying to reduce payments, including those on aircraft, and would respond to the letter privately.
The airline said it was focused on short-term liquidity, including removing costs from the business and working with suppliers to defer and reduce payments where possible.
It said grounding its fleet removed significant costs and that it was continuing to talk to UK pilots union BALPA over a potential deal with pilots.
“We are working tirelessly to ensure that easyJet continues to be well positioned to overcome the challenges of coronavirus,” easyJet CEO Johan Lundgren said in a statement.
Hajji-Ioannou has told the airline to try to raise money from shareholders, and offered to participate himself.
Management could face disruption if it does not address his worries over the Airbus order, which is due to be paid between 2020 and 2023, as he has threatened a rolling general meetings to try to remove board members.
For easyJet cabin crew looking for something to do, Britain’s National Health Service has asked them to volunteer at hospitals being set up to cope with the thousands of coronavirus patients expected in the coming weeks. Crew have first aid training and security clearance, making them ideal candidates.
EasyJet said it was focused on using UK government measures already announced to help its finances during the coronavirus crisis and has no plans to ask for any bespoke support.
Some UK airlines had been hoping for a specific state aid package but the government said last week it would only consider stepping in once carriers had exhausted all other options, such as raising capital from existing investors.
On Monday, small regional British airline Loganair, which flies between remote Scottish islands and the mainland, said it was planning to ask the government for support, having already asked its owners for help.
“I do think that like the vast majority of UK airlines we will be going back to take up that invite for further conversation with the Treasury in the coming days because we have to,” said Loganair CEO Jonathan Hinkles.
Virgin Atlantic has already requested state aid, asking for a package of commercial loans and guarantees worth hundreds of millions of pounds, according to the Financial Times.

Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

Updated 16 July 2020

Tanker off UAE sought by US over Iran sanctions ‘hijacked’

  • The circumstances of the hijack are still unclear and the boat has been tracked to Iranian waters

DUBAI: An oil tanker sought by the US over allegedly circumventing sanctions on Iran was hijacked on July 5 off the coast of the UAE, a seafarers organization said Wednesday.

Satellite photos showed the vessel in Iranian waters on Tuesday and two of its sailors remained in the Iranian capital.

It wasn’t immediately clear what happened aboard the Dominica-flagged MT Gulf Sky, though its reported hijacking comes after months of tensions between Iran and the US

David Hammond, the CEO of the United Kingdom-based group Human Rights at Sea, said he took a witness statement from the captain of the MT Gulf Sky, confirming the ship had been hijacked.

Hammond said that 26 of the Indian sailors on board had made it back to India, while two remained in Tehran, without elaborating.

“We are delighted to hear that the crew are safe and well, which has been our fundamental concern from the outset,” Hammond told The Associated Press.

Hammond said that he had no other details about the vessel.

TankerTrackers.com, a website tracking the oil trade at sea, said it saw the vessel in satellite photos on Tuesday in Iranian waters off Hormuz Island. 

Hormuz Island, near the port city of Bandar Abbas, is some 190 kilometers (120 miles) north of Khorfakkan, a city on the eastern coast of the United Arab Emirates where the vessel had been for months.

The Emirati government, the US Embassy in Abu Dhabi and the US Navy’s Bahrain-based 5th Fleet did not respond to requests for comment. Iranian state media did not immediately report on the vessel and Iran’s mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In May, the US Justice Department filed criminal charges against two Iranians, accusing them of trying to launder some $12 million to purchase the tanker, at that time named the MT Nautica, through a series of front companies. 

The vessel then took on Iranian oil from Kharg Island to sell abroad, the US government said.

Court documents allege the scheme involved the Quds Force of Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which is its elite expeditionary unit, as well as Iran’s national oil and tanker companies. The two men charged, one of whom also has an Iraqi passport, remain at large.

“Because a US bank froze the funds related to the sale of the vessel, the seller never received payment,” the Justice Department said. “As a result, the seller instituted a civil action in the UAE to recover the vessel.”

That civil action was believed to be still pending, raising questions of how the tanker sailed away from the Emirates after being seized by authorities there.

Data from the MT Gulf Sky’s Automatic Identification System tracker shows it had been turned off around 4:30 a.m. on July 5, according to ship-tracking website MarineTraffic.com. Ships are supposed to keep their AIS trackers on, but Iranian vessels routinely turn theirs off to mask their movements.

Meanwhile, the 28 Indian sailors on board the vessel found themselves stuck on board without pay for months, according to the International Labor Organization. It filed a report saying the vessel and its sailors had been abandoned by its owners since March off Khorfakkan. The ILO did not respond to a request for comment.

As tensions between Iran and the US heated up last year, tankers plying the waters of the Mideast became targets, particularly near the crucial Strait of Hormuz, the Arabian Gulf’s narrow mouth through which 20 percent of all oil passes. Suspected limpet mine attacks the US blamed on Iran targeted several tankers. Iran denied being involved, though it did seize several tankers.