Qatar has a feel-good slogan for its flagship airline: “Going places together.” But for the moment, the energy-rich Middle Eastern country seems to be getting exactly nowhere with American Airlines Group Inc.
State-owned Qatar Airways Ltd.’s surprise overture to acquire a major stake in American, a partner in the Oneworld alliance but an archrival on lucrative long-distance routes, was met with skepticism in the stock market after initial enthusiasm. American reacted with bewilderment, if not hostility, to the company’s interest.
“Puzzling at best and concerning at worst,’’ Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker said. The airline’s pilots union went further, calling it an act of “financial aggression” while flight attendants said it was a threat to their jobs.
The development marks a new twist in a long battle between U.S. carriers and their Persian Gulf rivals over accusations of unfair competition. The move is playing out against the backdrop of renewed efforts by President Donald Trump’s administration to mediate the simmering crisis between Qatar and some of the closest U.S. allies in the region, notably Saudi Arabia.
The brash proposal of American’s would-be investor also underscores the efforts of Qatar Airways to bolster its portfolio of global airline interests and expand its U.S. footprint. While CEO Akbar Al Baker once taunted his U.S. rivals, he’s now angling for an equity stake in American similar to the one held by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc.
Al Baker told Parker of the Gulf carrier’s interest in American when the two men met during an airline industry conference this month in Cancun, Mexico, said Matt Miller, a spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas-based company.
“While anyone can purchase our shares in the open market, we aren’t particularly excited about Qatar’s outreach,” Parker said in a letter to staff Thursday. “Of course, it may just be that Qatar Airways views American Airlines as a solid financial investment,” he cheekily ended the memo, crediting his employees.
Qatar responded in kind. The Gulf carrier is happy to see that Parker agrees with Qatar “that American Airlines is a solid financial investment,” it tweeted Friday.
Even with the potential investment, Parker vowed to continue a campaign against Qatar Airways, Emirates and Etihad Airways PJSC. American, Delta Air Lines Inc. and United Continental Holdings Inc. have railed against the three Persian Gulf carriers for years, saying that $50 billion in government support have enabled them to compete unfairly.
Another obstacle for any American-Qatar rapprochement is opposition by the U.S. carrier’s labor unions, said Hunter Keay, an analyst at Wolfe Research. The threat of lower-paying, non-union jobs at Qatar Airways would roil American’s employees, upsetting Parker’s overriding goal of winning the trust of employees.
“We don’t see it happening,’’ Keay said in a note to clients. Parker’s “single biggest thing right now is driving buy-in and trust from his employees.”
Qatar Airways is interested in buying a 10 percent stake, American said in a regulatory filing. That would be worth about $2.4 billion based on American’s current market value. In a statement after the filing, the Doha-based airline said it planned to make a passive investment of as much as 4.75 percent, saying it saw “a strong investment opportunity.”
American rose only 1.1 percent to $48.97 at the close in New York after surging as much as 4.4 percent in earlier trading, the biggest intraday gain in six weeks.
Establishing a holding in American would extend an investment strategy in which the Qatari airline has purchased significant stakes in IAG SA, the parent of British Airways, and Latam Airlines Group SA, which are both close allies of the the U.S. carrier.
Accumulating American shares via the open market would parallel Qatar’s approach to building its IAG holding, which stands at 20 percent, making the Gulf carrier the No. 1 investor in a group that also owns Spain’s Iberia and Aer Lingus of Ireland. Qatar, American, IAG and Latam are all members of the Oneworld global alliance.
“This may buy a little bit of silence in the sense of complaints about Middle Eastern carriers’ expansion and growth,” said Robert Mann, an aviation consultant. He added that the move may also help Qatar get a bigger chunk of trans-Atlantic business travel dollars following its investment in IAG.
An investment in American could also serve as “a stepping stone to more access to the U.S.,” Cowen & Co. analyst Helane Becker said in a note. Still, given the “political overhang,” Gulf carriers may also consider deals with smaller U.S. airlines such as Alaska Air Group Inc. or JetBlue Airways Corp., she said.
Qatar Airways has remained bullish on the U.S., even after Trump’s attempt to block travel from six predominantly Muslim nations and a U.S. ban on carrying laptop and tablet computers onto flights from some Middle Eastern airports, including Doha.
The airline vowed to continue its global expansion even as its state owner gets punished by an escalating political standoff that’s threatening to choke Qatar’s economy. A move this month by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to shut down flights to Qatar forced Qatar Airways to ground more than 50 daily departures — or about 10 percent of its total — according to scheduling firm OAG.
For their part, the big U.S. airlines show no signs of softening their opposition.
Delta held a rally Wednesday for employees in Atlanta, featuring a new documentary outlining the threat from the Gulf airlines. Delta canceled its sponsorship of Atlanta’s Fox Theatre last year after the venue hosted a Qatar Airways event with an appearance by Jennifer Lopez, to celebrate the opening of a route between the U.S. city and Qatar. At the time, Al Baker said the route would “rub salt in the wounds’’ of Delta.
Parker vowed to redouble lobbying efforts against the Gulf carriers even after Qatar Airways’ interest in buying a stake.
“We will not be discouraged or dissuaded from our full court press in Washington, D.C., to stand up to companies that are illegally subsidized by their governments,’’ Parker said in a letter to employees. “If anything, this development strengthens our resolve to ensure the U.S. government enforces its trade agreements regarding fair competition with Gulf carriers.”
–With assistance from Deena Kamel Yousef and Christopher Jasper
©2017 Bloomberg L.P.
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