* Transport group takes 23.7 pct of Brazil’s No. 3 airline
* $450 million in cash buys time for much-delayed IPO
* JetBlue founder Neeleman keeps control of Azul (Adds comments from Azul CEO, company and industry background, pictures)
By Brad Haynes and Matthew Miller
SAO PAULO/BEIJING, Nov 24 (Reuters) - China’s HNA Group partnered with JetBlue founder David Neeleman on Tuesday, agreeing to buy a $450 million stake in Azul SA, Brazil’s third-largest airline, and providing a cash cushion until a much-delayed initial public offering (IPO) proceeds.
The 23.7 percent stake in Azul SA will be a first foray into Latin America for HNA Group, an aviation, tourism and logistics conglomerate that recently snapped up air cargo handlers Swissport and Irish aircraft leasing company Avolon.
The capital injection will bolster Azul’s cash position in return for preferred stock, without diluting Neeleman’s two-thirds of voting shares, Azul’s chief executive, Antonoaldo Neves, said in a telephone interview.
Azul has repeatedly postponed a planned IPO in New York and Sao Paulo since 2013 because of turbulent financial markets, a weakening Brazilian economy and fierce competition from market leaders Gol Linhas Aereas SA and the TAM unit of regional powerhouse Latam Airlines Group SA.
“We didn’t have any pressure to do an IPO in the next 12 months ... but now we have even more time,” said Neves, adding that the deal was driven by the potential for cost savings with HNA on leasing, maintenance, insurance and aircraft orders.
Azul is the biggest Latin American operator of E-Jets made by Brazil’s Embraer SA. HNA Group owns Embraer’s biggest client in China.
HNA companies may give Azul more options to sell or lease unused aircraft amid a sharp recession in Brazil, Neves said, adding that he planned to dispose of 10 or 15 planes as the airline trims capacity up to 4 percent next year.
Neves said there were no plans to alter Azul’s international service, which started recently with flights to Florida.
HNA Group will name a member to Azul’s board of directors and negotiate code-share agreements with subsidiaries.
In June, United Continental Holdings Inc reached a similar but smaller deal with Azul, paying $100 million for a 5 percent stake and the right to name a board member.
Neeleman, who left JetBlue Airways Corp in 2008 and launched Azul shortly after, is also leading a consortium of investors that agreed this month to take control of Portuguese airline TAP.
In September, HNA’s Bohai Leasing Co Ltd agreed to buy leasing firm Avolon Holdings Ltd for $2.5 billion. The group also agreed this year to pay 2.7 billion Swiss francs for Zurich-based Swissport, a deal cleared by the European Commission last week. (Additional reporting by Aluisio Alves and Caroline Stauffer in Sao Paulo and Fang Yan in Beijing; Editing by Jason Neely and Matthew Lewis)