DUBLIN (AP) — Irish airline Aer Lingus says it now strongly favors its acquisition by British Airways parent IAG in a statement to shareholders issued Friday.
IAG officials spent two days in Dublin this week lobbying the Irish government, the airline's No. 2 shareholder, to part with its 25.1 percent stake in the airline. IAG has stressed it won't proceed with its takeover bid, valuing Aer Lingus at 1.36 billion euros ($1.55 billion), unless the government agrees to sell.
Aer Lingus Chairman Colm Barrington said an IAG takeover would allow the airline to grow most strongly on North American routes, with Dublin Airport likely to grow as "a natural gateway" for trans-Atlantic travelers.
Barrington said detailed analysis of IAG's Jan. 26 offer of 2.55 euros ($2.90) per share, an improvement on two earlier offers, shows that "a combination of Aer Lingus with IAG has a compelling strategic rationale and will deliver significant benefits for Aer Lingus, its employees, its customers and for Ireland."
But the airline's share price slid 1.8 percent to close Friday night at 2.21 euros ($2.52) as investors assessed that the airline's two biggest shareholders, the government and budget rival Ryanair, have shown little public appetite to sell.
The government faces substantial public opposition to any sale of its remaining stake in Aer Lingus, a shamrock-emblazoned symbol of Irish independence that was floated on the Irish and British stock exchanges in 2006. The smaller party in Ireland's coalition government, Labour, is closely tied to labor unions that oppose any dilution of the government's hold on the airline.
Looming in the background is Ryanair, Aer Lingus' main Dublin-based competitor on European short-haul routes. Ryanair launched three hostile bids for Aer Lingus — all shot down by united opposition from the government, European regulators, employee trusts and unions — and today remains its biggest shareholder with a 29.8 percent stake.
Earlier this week a British court endorsed a United Kingdom competition authority's order to Ryanair to divest itself of all but 5 percent of Aer Lingus shares. Ryanair vowed to appeal and says IAG's bid disproves the British competition authority's central argument that Ryanair was blocking other takeover suitors. It has declined to comment on the IAG bid.
Analysts say some shareholders are holding out in hope that a third bidder emerges, further driving up the sales price.
Aer Lingus is considered attractive chiefly because it is the fourth-largest holder of landing slots at Heathrow Airport near London, arguably Europe's busiest and most strategic hub. But Ireland also is seen as ideal for funneling American traffic through Europe, because the U.S. government prepositions customs and immigration officials at Aer Lingus' two primary Irish bases for faster arrivals in the United States.