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Lauda says Lufthansa wants to ‘destroy’ Niki airline

Austrian former racing driver Niki Lauda on Sunday accused German carrier Lufthansa of trying to "destroy" the Niki airline which he founded.

Lauda says Lufthansa wants to 'destroy' Niki airline
Former racing driver Niki Lauda on the launch of the Niki airline in 2003. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

Niki — formerly a unit of now bankrupt Air Berlin, and most recently operated by Lufthansa — was grounded last Wednesday after applying to open insolvency proceedings.

The move came after Lufthansa abandoned plans to buy Niki, a holiday airline with 21 aircraft, together with large parts of Air Berlin because of EU competition concerns.

Lauda, 68, a former Formula One champion, had said last week he was potentially interested in again acquiring the airline he sold to Air Berlin in 2011.

But he has now charged that Lufthansa was effectively blocking the sale of Niki because it “wants to destroy” it, in comments to Bild am Sonntag newspaper.

Under EU rules Lufthansa would have to hand the leased aircraft to a potential investor, but the report said it had bought up many of its aircraft.

“Without aircraft, the airline has no value,” Lauda said.

“If there is no new investor, the take-off and landing slots are divided among the remaining airlines at the respective airports.

“That's how Lufthansa gets what it wants, and for free.”

A Lufthansa spokesman denied the claim and told the newspaper the airline was in compliance with the rules.

Air Berlin triggered bankruptcy proceedings in August after losing a cash lifeline from its biggest shareholder, Etihad Airways, and was grounded in October.

The European Commission said Wednesday that Lufthansa's offer to buy 81 aircraft from Air Berlin's 140-plane fleet plus Niki for €210 million ($250 million) posed “clear risks to Austrian, German and Swiss consumers and to effective competition”.

In Germany, complaints have multiplied that Lufthansa had hiked ticket prices since the demise of the country's second biggest airline.

There had been “a significant increase in complaints about ticket prices,” the head of the consumer protection federation, Klaus Mueller, told national news agency DPA.

“We see that many people are paying a lot more than they used to,” he said.

FLYING

Lufthansa plans €1 billion spending spree on planes

Germany's largest airline Lufthansa said Tuesday it would push "rapid growth" at low-cost subsidiary Eurowings by spending €1.0 billion on acquiring more planes, some of them from bankrupt competitor Air Berlin.

Lufthansa plans €1 billion spending spree on planes
Photo: DPA

“The funds will be used towards obtaining up to 61 aircraft, including 41 Airbus A320 Family aircraft” and 20 smaller turboprop planes, Lufthansa said in a statement – both types found in Air Berlin's fleet.

“Acquisition of the aircraft is partly dependent on the successful conclusion of negotiations” with the stricken carrier, the group added.

Lufthansa has emerged as the leading bidder for Air Berlin's assets, including valuable landing and takeoff slots at German airports, following its insolvency declaration in mid-August.

The group has already bought or holds an option to buy some 20 Air Berlin aircraft that were leased to Eurowings in recent months.

With Tuesday's announcement on top, the low-cost subsidiary will grow by a total of up to 81 aircraft.

It is not clear exactly how many planes Lufthansa wants to buy from Germany's number two airline, but chief executive Carsten Spohr recently suggested he could buy between 58 and 78 aircraft – around half of Air Berlin's fleet.

News agency DPA reported the yellow-and-blue liveried airline hopes to grab 55 planes belonging to Air Berlin subsidiaries Niki and LGW, as well as 13 more from the parent company, for a total of 68.

Meanwhile, Britain's EasyJet – the other bidder in talks with Air Berlin – is interested in 27 to 30 planes.

Operating the new planes would create “up to 3,000 additional jobs, especially in the cockpit and cabin crew fields,” the Lufthansa statement added.

Many of those posts could go to former Air Berlin employees.

The insolvent firm's administrators said Monday that as many of 80 percent of its more than 8,000 workers could find jobs at Lufthansa and Britain's EasyJet.

Air Berlin executives, administrators and buyers are set to thrash out deals to dismantle the company by October 12th.