EasyJet could swoop for parts of Air Berlin as it goes into administration

EasyJet could spread its wings in Germany as it emerged as a potential buyer for parts of Air Berlin, which filed for administration on Tuesday.

The German government has provided an emergency €150m (£137m) loan to Air Berlin to enable it to keep flying its schedules.

Air Berlin is the second largest airline in Germany, but has struggled financially for years. It was propped up by its main shareholder, Etihad, but the Gulf airline announced it was no longer willing to invest.

Lufthansa is in talks and would be well placed to take over most of its ailing competitor – prompting criticism from rival Ryanair.

EasyJet would be keen to acquire slots to boost its small presence in Germany, where Lufthansa dominates. However, it is unlikely to countenance a full takeover: Air Berlin operates a large Airbus fleet similar to easyJet’s but also has more than 100 Boeing planes, as well as high costs and pension liabilities.

An easyJet spokesman said it would not comment on speculation.

Air Berlin made losses of €782m in 2016. Etihad, which owns almost 30% of Air Berlin, said the developments were “extremely disappointing” but it could not keep injecting cash, after investing an additional €250m in April.

An Etihad spokesman said: “Air Berlin’s business has deteriorated at an unprecedented pace, preventing it from overcoming its significant challenges and from implementing alternative strategic solutions. Under these circumstances, as a minority shareholder, Etihad cannot offer funding that would further increase our financial exposure.”

The Gulf airline had also invested heavily in the perennially loss-making Alitalia before deciding to stem the cashflow earlier this year, pushing the Italian carrier similarly into administration.

The German government, like Italy’s before it with Alitalia, is now helping to find a solution to protect jobs. Ryanair, which has bid for Alitalia, is not believed to be seeking any part of Air Berlin.

The Irish airline lodged a competition complaint on Tuesday with German authorities and the European commission over what it claimed was “the obvious conspiracy” between the German government, Lufthansa and Air Berlin to carve up Air Berlin’s assets, excluding competitors and ignoring EU competition and state aid rules.

A Ryanair spokesman said: “This is clearly being set up for Lufthansa to take over Air Berlin, which will be in breach of all known German and EU competition rules. Now even the German government is supporting this Lufthansa-led deal with €150m of state aid. German customers and visitors will suffer higher air fares to pay for this Lufthansa monopoly.”

Analysts said a Lufthansa takeover would indeed mainly be to thwart the likes of Ryanair. Damian Brewer, of RBS, said: “For Lufthansa we see any moves as defensive – blocking other more competitive airlines from expanding. If acquired, Air Berlin’s Düsseldorf airport slots would likely be a valuable asset to Lufthansa while freezing new entrants out of the ‘full’ airport, unless the German authorities require slots to be surrendered to new entrants.”