Serbia's JAT struggles to land white knight

By bne IntelliNews April 16, 2013

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Serbia's loss-making JAT Airways is struggling to land its white knight, as Etihad Airways stops short of taking a stake, agreeing for the moment only to share route-booking codes.

Hopes were high that Abu Dhabi-based Etihad would buy a stake in JAT, with reports suggesting that a deal for 49% of the company was on the table. That would have mirrored a deal in March that saw Korean Air take a 44% stake in fellow CEE struggler Czech Airlines for €2.6m. The Serbian finance ministry said last month that a memorandum of understanding, the first step in forming a strategic partnership, would be signed with Etihad in mid-April.

According to Belgrade, that preliminary agreement was set to see the government take on €170m of the flag carrier's debt, lease six new aircraft from Airbus, and secure severance payments for redundant workers. Yet when push came to shove, Etihad CEO James Hogan told a news conference on April 15 that any investment is a long way off. "We have to look at JAT to see if that opportunity exists. It is still a very early stage of that process," he said, according to Reuters.

For now, the deal will be restricted to JAT adding its JU code to flights to 21 destinations within Etihad's network, while the Gulf airline will put its EY code on all 23 JAT flights to Europe, Hogan said. Etihad will also start operating flights between Abu Dhabi and Belgrade on June 15, following competitor Qatar Airways, which started flights between Doha and the Serbian capital via Ankara late last year.

Struggling Serbia has been casting around for investment from all four corners of the world, including the Middle East, Russia and China. Belgrade has already secured a $400m sovereign loan from Abu Dhabi for agriculture investment and agreed more than $400m in investment by the Al Dahra agricultural firm based in the emirate.

As well as JAT, the country is also trying to sell its remaining state-run firms, including the RTB Bor copper mines, JAT Tehnika aircraft maintenance company and indebted Galenika pharmaceuticals. On April 12, the finance ministry said that the US-based unit of Canada's Valeant Pharmaceuticals International was the only potential partner for Galenika, having met all the conditions of a tender.

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