As a capitalist, I have historically opposed “nationalisation”, as I believe major companies are better operated in the private sector compared to the public sector, which to be blunt, is often populated with politically motived and less commercially astute people.
In times of crisis though, we need exceptional measures.
It is virtually impossible for airlines to “independently” raise further funding at the moment. Their high levels of debt-to-assets make them very unattractive propositions for the world’s banks, and few pension funds would consider investing in the shares of major businesses that have virtually no revenues at the moment.
The industry needs the government to launch what I would loosely describe as a “commercial nationalisation”, whereby the government provides guarantees to underpin a massive equity rights issue, where UK airlines issue more shares to raise billions in new funding.
The government would have to guarantee to buy any left-over shares, at a fixed low price per share, in order to create certainty about the survival of the airlines. This certainty is what investors need, in order to take a longer-term view and grab shares at a low price, in inherently profitable airlines, that will quickly return to profitability once the coronavirus crisis passes.
Current European laws prevent state subsidies to airlines and ironically the heads of easyJet, British Airways and Ryanair vehemently opposed the attempted government rescue of Flybe. However, exceptional circumstances demand exceptional measures, and to hell with Europe, given Britain will be leaving the European Union in January 2021.
A major rights issue might not be popular with existing shareholders, as they will see a massive dilution in earnings per share and their annual dividends when the good times return, and the move will force airlines’ share prices even lower. Similarly, airline bosses may not want to be the ones to give shareholders this harsh message.
However, in my opinion, a smaller share in a surviving business trumps a larger share in a bankrupt airline.
The other key benefit of an equity raise is that it does not create a debt mountain that reduces airline competitiveness moving forward, and allows new entrants launched post-coronavirus with none of the legacy debt to take their market share. Just look at how quickly easyJet and Ryanair destroyed the traditional scheduled airline sector, so don’t rule it out.
From a government perspective, a “commercial nationalisation” would allow it to reclaim its money much faster post-coronavirus, by slowly selling its airline shares as the boom times for airlines return.
Even with an equity investment of this scale, the government may still need to provide further assistance in the form of freezing air traffic control fees and suspending consumer rights to compensation under European regulation EC261 for cancelled flights.
Forcing credit card clearers to release the millions in consumer funds that they are holding against the risk of airline collapses would also provide a massive short-term cash boost and should be one of the conditions of commercial nationalisation.
My previous call to defer consumer refunds payments has been criticised as being insensitive and anti-consumer, since some customers clearly want and need a cash refund.
I fully accept this, but think it’s unfair that customers with immediate departures could force refunds that send airlines or travel companies bust, denying a much higher percentage of people the chance to get their money back.
Remember unlike “package holidays”, despite continuous protests from the wider travel industry, airlines have been allowed to operate on an unbonded basis and there is no Atol fund for consumers to call upon as the guarantee of last resort.
I am also concerned about the knock on impact on travel agents if no formal “deferral” scheme is put in place. Retailers are the ones who will have cleared consumer cards, before passing funds on to tour operators or using them to pay airlines within dynamically packaged holidays.
Consumers will use credit/debit schemes to reclaim their funds, even though the retailer may not have been able to recover the cash from its suppliers. Trust fund or no trust fund, the retailer could then be forced into bankruptcy, again meaning customers who have holidays departing later will lose their money and have to try to claim via the Atol scheme.
The Atol fund has been completely depleted by the recent collapse of Thomas Cook and does not have the funds to pay out these claims quickly, if ever unless the government replenishes it.
The Government therefore needs to act quickly and decisively this week, to shore up the airlines and introduce measures to allow the travel industry to defer holidays and not refund, as this is needed to protect all holidaymakers and not just the ones with short-term departures who can reclaim their money.
Sorry customers, but this really is for the common good.
Do you agree? Should the government step in and nationalise airlines to some extent during the current crisis?