Soaring fuel prices clip Air Berlin’s wings

FRANKFURT (AFP) — Air Berlin’s spreading wings have been clipped badly by soaring fuel prices and a series of austerity measures may not suffice to keep the German low-cost carrier in the air, analysts say.

From November, the second-biggest German airline behind Lufthansa will trim its fleet by 10 percent, cut long-distance services by nearly one-third and return 14 leased planes to their owners.

The carrier will also reduce administrative services at dba, another budget airline it owns, in southern Munich and lay off 52 workers, “to absorb part of the increased kerosene cost,” it said last week.

Air Berlin will still face a tough future with these cost reductions.

It has already cut its 2008 forecasts twice and now only hopes to post a small operating profit, compared with an estimate earlier of 140-160 million euros (220-250 million dollars).

Mezler bank analyst Juergen Pieper said the airline’s economy plan “is good in theory but comes too late.”

Pieper said the airline might have developed too quickly in the past few years without establishing a clear growth strategy.

In buying dba and the charter airline LTU, Air Berlin enlarged its focus from Europe to long-distance services.

Most recently, Air Berlin also bought Condor, a carrier that flies to Phuket, Thailand and to the Carribean.

That left it unclear about “what its strong points are,” Pieper commented.

Air Berlin also launched flights to China in May to take advantage of the Beijing Olympic Games but then had to announce it was cutting back on services to Shanghai and would halt Chinese routes completely during the winter season.

“They spent a lot and got heavily into debt,” Pieper said.

His view was shared by LBBW analyst Per-Ola Hellgren, who spoke to Dow Jones Newswires.

Air Berlin was caught short by a sharp rise in fuel prices and its growth model was no longer valid, Hellgren said.

The acquisition of Condor, which has still not been approved by German competition authorities, “no longer makes sense” he said.

Plans to renovate the airline’s fleet have also been called into question.

A spokesman said major orders placed with Boeing and the Canadian company Bombardier were not covered by the austerity measures.

“Financing has been assured for planes to be delivered in 2008 and 2009,” he said in reference to 10 Bombardier jets.

But Pieper was doubtful regarding an order for 25 Boeing 787 long-haul aircraft that were to be delivered between 2013 and 2017.

“Part of it will have to be cancelled,” he forecast, adding: “They have to restructure now.”

Air Berlin was being talked about as a possible takeover candidate a few months ago but it was no longer an attractive prospect, he said, adding that the company faced “a slow death.”

Air Berlin shares that were listed at around 12 euros a year ago fell to five euros last week.

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