Air France-KLM may raise more capital in 2021 to cut debt, CEO says

The airline is optimistic about a travel recovery on the back of vaccinations and digital health passes.

epa09130174 An Air France Boeing 787 bound for Bogota, Colombia,  awaiting loading  of Chinese vaccine SinoVac in Roissy Airport, near Paris, 11 April 2021 (issued 12 April 2021). Airline company Air France KLM Cargo, operated two flies to Cameroon and Colombia with a shipment of Chinese covid19 vaccines SinoPharm and SinoVac through its cargo area of Roissy airport (CDG).  EPA/CHRISTOPHE PETIT TESSON
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Air France-KLM may raise more capital to bolster its balance sheet as travel begins to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic in the coming months, its chief executive said on Monday.

Ben Smith, speaking at an online industry event as a €1.036 billion ($1.25bn) share issue by the airline group nears completion, signalled it could move relatively quickly to seek further funds and reduce debt.

"We do have heavy debt that is holding back our balance sheet, so this may have to get looked at again later in the year," he said, adding Air France-KLM was encouraged by European progress on vaccinations and digital health passes.

The capital hike sees the French government more than double its stake in the airline group to almost 30 per cent as part of a total recapitalisation package worth about €4bn euros announced earlier this month.

The stock issue at €4.84 per share will raise €1.036bn with the full exercise of an option to increase the offering, the airliner said, after its shares closed at €5.03 in Paris.

It follows last year's €10.4bn debt bailout for the group, backed by the French and Dutch governments.

"This is positive for them in terms of getting through these difficult times but negative in that it's giving them enormous debts for the future and potential political interference," aviation consultant John Strickland said at the same event.

As part of the latest package, France is transforming €3bn of government loans into hybrid bond instruments, while the Netherlands is seeking EU approval for the similar conversion of another 1 billion. The new share issue will dilute the Dutch government's equity stake to 9.3 per cent.

China Eastern Airlines will increase its stake in the group from 8.8 per cent to 9.6 per cent. As expected, Delta Air Lines will see its holding diluted to 5.8 per cent.

Air France-KLM currently plans at least to match the 50 per cent of pre-crisis summer flight capacity it managed last year and is optimistic about a sharper rebound, Mr Smith said.

"We're loading capacity on an opportunistic basis," the chief executive added. "We do have enough crew trained and qualified to fly much more."