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BA, Iberia face last hurdle over landmark merger

Shareholders in British Airways and Iberia vote Monday on whether to approve a multi-billion-euro merger creating Europe’s second biggest airline as the sector recovers after a severe economic downturn.

Investors in London and Madrid are widely expected to back the tie-up, that will value the pair at a combined 6.6 billion euros, after the share prices of BA and Iberia have spiked by about 40 and 70 percent respectively this year.

The boards of the British and Spanish airlines agreed a deal in April, while EU competition regulators have also given the green light for a full alliance.

“The BA/Iberia merger allows the two carriers to ‘catch up’ to rival groupings such as Air France KLM and Lufthansa,” said independent aviation analyst John Strickland.

“It provides a wider overall network, with Iberia bringing its Latin American presence to the table and BA its strength across the North Atlantic and to the Middle East and Asia,” he told AFP.

A tie-up, on schedule to be completed in January, would create Europe’s second-biggest airline by market capitalisation after Germany’s Lufthansa, and fly 60 million passengers a year.

BA and Iberia sought to merge as the global economic downturn and the rise of low-cost airlines resulted in steep losses for traditional carriers.

However since the tie-up announcement, the pair have overcome travel chaos due to strikes and the volcanic ash cloud to post healthy returns to profit, indicating that the sector is on a path to recovery after the deep recession.

The landmark Anglo-Spanish deal would create annual savings of around 400 million euros by the fifth year of the merger, which would see the creation of a new holding company with a primary shares listing in London.

BA would hold 55 percent of the new capital and Iberia 45 percent.

“There will be opportunities for increased efficiencies over time — such as in fleet purchasing and operating plans and in joint marketing and sales,” added Strickland.

“Nevertheless the management will have to work hard to integrate the two companies given their different geographic locations and different national cultures.”

As part of new holding company International Consolidated Airlines Group, BA and Iberia would each retain their current operations and individual brands.

Current BA chief executive Willie Walsh would become chief executive of the new group and Iberia chairman Antonio Vazquez would be chairman.

The merger cleared a significant hurdle when Iberia said it had decided not to exercise its right to cancel the deal over a BA employees’ pensions deficit of 3.7 billion pounds (4.4 billion euros, 5.8 billion dollars).

Awaiting finalisation of the merger, BA recently launched a transatlantic alliance with Iberia and American Airlines, pledging cheaper fares and more travel choice.

BA rebounded to a net profit of 107 millions pounds for the six months to September, its first interim profit for two years, while the first-half earnings compared with a net loss of 217 million pounds a year earlier.

Iberia posted profit after tax of 53 million euros for the nine months to September, recovering from a loss of 182 million euros a year earlier.

The healthy results were the latest evidence of a strengthening recovery in the airline industry which was savaged by the worldwide economic slump that hammered demand for air travel.