September 14, 2017 / 4:17 PM / 10 months ago

Former F1 champion Niki Lauda eyes parts of Air Berlin

VIENNA/BERLIN (Reuters) - Three-time Formula One world champion Niki Lauda said he has partnered with holiday firm Thomas Cook’s German airline Condor to make a bid worth around 100 million euros ($119 million) for 38 Air Berlin leased aircraft.

F1 - Formula One - British Grand Prix 2017 - Silverstone, Britain - July 14, 2017 Mercedes Formula One team chairman Niki Lauda REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

Air Berlin, Germany’s second largest airline, filed for insolvency last month after major shareholder Etihad withdrew funding following years of losses.

Administrators are now seeking to sell the business, with bids due to be submitted by Friday. A decision on the bids will be taken on Sept. 25, the day after Germany’s national election and four days later than planned, Air Berlin said on Thursday.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government last month granted a 150 million-euro loan to prevent Air Berlin’s planes from being grounded, which would have stranded holidaymakers abroad and put around 8,000 jobs at risk.

Most potential investors are seen as being interested primarily in Air Berlin’s roughly 140 leased aircraft and its airport landing and take-off slots rather than its operating business or employees.

Lauda holds a 51 percent stake in a consortium with Condor which will bid for 21 leased Airbus A320 and A321 planes operated by Air Berlin’s Niki - the holiday airline which Lauda once owned - and 17 Air Berlin aircraft, he told Austrian newspaper Kurier on Wednesday.

Asked how much he was willing to pay, Lauda told ORF radio on Thursday: “It depends very much on how the details are defined, but we are now offering around 100 million (euros).”

Thomas Cook CEO Peter Fankhauser declined to comment. The company has previously said it is looking to play an active role in the Air Berlin sale.

Two sources close to Condor cautioned, however, that no joint bid had yet been submitted.

One of them said such an offer was unlikely to materialize while the other source said that Condor remained interested in a double-digit number of planes, including ones for long-haul routes.

Austrian-based Niki has lower costs than Air Berlin and earlier this year it took over flying on popular routes from Germany to tourist destinations in Spain.

Lauda and Condor would face competition from Lufthansa, Germany’s largest airline.

Lufthansa plans to make an offer for up to 90 planes, including Niki’s fleet and 38 crewed planes it already leases from Air Berlin, a source told Reuters.

British airline easyJet is also interested in up to 40 planes, according to previous media reports, and Sueddeutsche Zeitung said on Thursday easyJet was interested in Air Berlin’s regional unit Luftfahrtgesellschaft Walter (LGW).

LGW currently operates 20 smaller Bombardier aircraft and its operating certificate is being changed so that it can fly the A320s used by easyJet, the newspaper said.

No one at the British carrier was immediately available for comment on Thursday.

Other interested parties include aviation industry investor Hans Rudolf Woehrl, who says he has submitted a bid for the whole of Air Berlin, while German family-owned logistics company Zeitfracht and China’s LinkGlobal Logistics have also expressed their interest.

Meanwhile the former head of German utility EnBW, Utz Claassen, has put up 100 million euros to buy the carrier and pledged another 600 million in liquidity, Handelsblatt newspaper said on Thursday.

Reporting by Shadia Nasralla, Victoria Bryan, Georgina Prodhan and Andreas Cremer with additional reporting by Alistair Smout in London; Editing by Jason Neely, Greg Mahlich

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