Saturday 28 January 2012

Thousands of passengers faced massive travel disruptions across Spain


Thousands of passengers faced massive travel disruptions across Spain on Saturday after domestic carrier Spanair cancelled all of its flights Friday night and prepared to file for bankruptcy. The abrupt collapse of the Barcelona-based carrier took place shortly after Qatar Airways walked away from talks to take over the money-losing airline after months of negotiations. "Due to a lack of financial visibility for the coming months, the company has had no option but to cease flying out of a duty of care for the safety of its operation and the well being of all concerned," Spanair said in a statement late Friday. "The appropriate next steps will be taken as soon as possible." More than 200 Spanair flights have been cancelled, affecting over 22,000 passengers. Spain's Public Works Minister Ana Pastor said on Saturday that the government may slap Spanair with about EUR9 million in fines and cancel its airline license due to the sudden cancellation of flights and failure to assist passengers. The Public Works ministry, which supervises the transport sector, said Spanair is required to assist customers and reimburse cancelled tickets. Many affected passengers complained on local television stations that Spanair was struggling to provide flight alternatives or even return the luggage from passengers who checked in shortly before all flights were abruptly cancelled on Friday night. A Spanair spokeswoman declined to comment on specific complaints from customers. The company said it has set up a customer service hotline, while Spain's airport authority AENA is providing passenger support services at the country's main airports. Flagship carrier Iberia Lineas Aereas de Espana SA said it was accepting affected Spanair passengers in its flights and offering lower airfares. Other domestic carriers are also assisting Spanair customers. "The Company would like to apologize to everyone affected by this announcement and thanks the aviation authorities for their help and support," as well as other airlines that assisting affected passengers, Spanair said on Friday night. A company spokesman didn't immediately return calls seeking comment on Saturday. The government of Spain's Catalonia region is Spanair's main shareholder with a stake of 85.6%, while Spanair's former owner, Scandinavian airline SAS AB (SAS.SK), holds a stake of 10.9% of the troubled carrier. SAS issued a profit warning on Friday night. It said that following the decision of Spanair's board to apply for bankruptcy, it will write down EUR165 million of the outstanding debt and receivables on Spanair and set aside another EUR28 million in guarantees and costs linked to Spanair's bankruptcy. "SAS Group will follow customary procedures as a creditor in the upcoming bankruptcy process," the Scandinavian company said in a press release late Friday, adding that it had already reduced the value of its shareholding in Spanair to zero. Created in 1986 with SAS as top shareholder, Spanair was purchased in 2009 by a group of local investors led by Catalonia's regional government, moving Spanair's headquarters from the Balearic Islands to Barcelona. The company, which has more than 2,000 employees, struggled financially in recent years, particularly after the crash of one of its aircraft during takeoff in Madrid almost four years ago, killing more than 150 passengers. As the economic crisis intensified in Spain, the Catalan government sought to keep the Barcelona-based airline afloat as part of an effort to develop Barcelona's El Prat Airport as a regional hub. However, it decided months ago that it couldn't keep supporting the company at a time when the government itself is facing serious financial headwinds, with the Spanish economy mired in its worst crisis in decades amid a deep property bust. Catalonia's financial support also sparked complaints from rivals on grounds that Spanair was getting unfair government support, in violation of European Union rules. In addition to an unprecedented economic crisis with record high unemployment rates, Spanair faced cutthroat competition from discount carriers and the expansion of Spain's high-speed rail network.