LISBON, Dec 18 (Reuters) - Private investors in indebted Portuguese airline TAP could pull out, likely forcing it out of business, if the new Socialist government succeeds in retaking a controlling interest in the carrier, one of the investors said on Friday.
The government this week started talks with the investors, American-Brazilian aviation tycoon David Neeleman and Portuguese bus company owner Humberto Pedrosa, to try and change a privatisation sealed last month by the previous administration.
The state sold a 61 percent stake in TAP to the private consortium, but new prime minister Antonio Costa has pledged to get the state’s interest back to 51 percent from 34 percent now.
“TAP has a lot of debt, but it has synergies with Azul,” Neeleman told channel TVI, referring to his Brazilian airline.
“However, if everything changes and TAP becomes a state company, we are not interested in that. That would be very different from the contract that we have signed.”
TAP flies various routes to Portuguese-speaking Brazil.
Neeleman, founder of U.S. budget airline JetBlue, said that without private owners, TAP would likely follow the same path as Estonian Air, which stopped flying on Nov. 7.
“That’s a big danger for TAP. TAP deserves to survive,” Neeleman said.
The previous centre-right government had argued the airline faced imminent collapse, making the privatisation a matter of urgency.
EU competition rules prohibit state aid to airlines unless they restructure, which in TAP’s case would require massive job cuts - something the Socialists and their leftist allies in parliament are unlikely to accept.
TAP CEO Fernando Pinto has expressed doubts about the success of the government’s plan after the new owners injected 180 million euros in the airline.
“I don’t know how the privatisation can be reversed. 180 million euros have come in, and I’ve already spent half of it,” he said recently.
Since it changed hands, TAP has already ordered 53 new Airbus jets. (Reporting by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Mark Potter)