Fran O’Sullivan: Air New Zealand fighting fires on many fronts

OPINION:

Dame Therese Walsh is adamant the “Saudi affair” has not damaged Air New Zealand’s relationship with the Government as it prepares to put its hand out formally for a hefty equity injection.

Walsh has faced a testing time during her nearly 18 months as Air NZ chair. As a former chair of TVNZ, she is well-versed in dealing with shareholding ministers on thorny issues.

But Air NZ’s current predicament is of a much higher order of magnitude.

The airline’s top brass are fighting a disruptive crusade launched by Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, who is impatient to nail the airline — and any relevant employees — for what she suspects is outright criminality over a contract its gas turbines offshoot signed, via Germany’s MTU, to refurbish some engines for the Royal Saudi Navy which has blockaded Yemen.

Watching Ghahraman in action at a parliamentary select committee this week, it appeared that she has been missingher former roles in international criminal tribunals.

But she is not at The Hague now.

Ghahraman was not satisfied with Foran’s statement that she would have to wait while the airline completed its internal investigation before he would name other countries (outside of NZ, Australia and the US) with which Air NZ had military contracts.

The MP clearly wants political blood and is advocating for an independent inquiry by Parliament’s foreign affairs committee. But with the airlinedealing with its very financial survival, a week or two’s delay until after its February 25 financial results is not going to change matters.

Finance Minister Grant Robertson also gave Foran a very public nudge to get on and reveal the countries.

But Robertson should also be careful not to overstep the mark.

He may be the shareholding minister for the airline. But Air NZ is not a state-owned enterprise. It is a publicly-listed company. There are other shareholders to consider.

The company also has commercial confidentiality to consider and would sensibly want to inform any affected customers ahead of any potential political hailstorm.

What is so wrong with letting the airline board and executive get on top of the full facts before makingmore informationpublic? It is not as if they do not have major issues on their plate, with a successful capital raiseto launch and a company to lead through this Covid era.

Put that to one side. The politically aware Walsh would no doubt have cautioned Foran that now was not the time to “bite the hand that feeds”.

Last night Foran issued a statement sayingengine repair work was underway for the Australian, Canadian, Taiwanese, Turkish and United States navies at its Auckland workshop, but these were now under review.

“Over the past decade, engine repair work has been completed for navies in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Norway, Taiwan, Turkey, the United States and the recent one-off piece of work for the Royal Saudi Navy.” He said the airline would continue to assess past records, but at this stage these were the ones it was aware of.

The reality is that the timing of this brouhaha is dreadful. The airline is burning cash at a very fast rate — the upshot of having its business decimated byCovid-19.

While the domestic business — which is where Air NZ butters its bread — is running at some 80 per cent of normal, the international business has been savaged.

It had earlier expected to open up transtasman operations by the end of March — assuming a “bubble” with Australia went ahead — which would have boosted revenue. But the Prime Minister’s instinctive caution suggests that deadline is not likely to be met. The result is thatthe financial “ask” from the Crown is likely to bemuch higher than Air NZ’s advisers would have predicted three months ago.

The airline will post its interim financial results on February25. At that time details of the upcoming capital raisewill also be unveiled.

Yesterday, Air NZ confirmed that the Government — subject to Cabinet being satisfied on the terms of the airline’s proposed equity capital raise — would inject sufficient funds to maintain a majority shareholding.

The terms of the Government’s contribution will be critical.

Last March, the Government ponied up with a $900 million loan at usurious rates of some 7-9 per cent, well over the Crown borrowing rate. By contrast, a week later Australia’s Qantas Airways raised A$1.05 billion ($1.13b)via a 10-year loan through a consortium of domestic and international banks secured against part of the Australian carrier’s fleet at an interest rate of 2.75 per cent.

The airline’s $900m loan can be converted to equity. But expectations are that the Crown will have to stump up more.

The negotiations have not been plain sailing.

Walsh played down the obvious tensions with Robertson over the Saudi affair. “The Government takes great interest in the company and we work very closely with them,” she told me after the select committee hearing.

“There are always moments along the way where they might like us to do something differently. There are moments where we might need something from the Government and so it is a very collaborative and constructive relationship.

“I don’t think this will in any way colour the [capital raise]that is upcoming by 30 June.”

Both Walsh and Robertson agree a viable Air New Zealand is essential.

Walsh says Air New Zealand is an organisation of national significance — important to the economy; important to the national psyche and important to our day-to-day lives.

Foran contends that the delay in getting an equity raiselaunched has to some degree advantaged the airline. He points out that they know a lot more about Covid today than even eight weeks ago.

“Many airlines moved very quickly at the beginning of Covid and had to go back and do several equity raises. Or secure more debt,” he says. “We’ve just been able to get on with business.”

This column was updated online to include Greg Foran’s statement which came after it had gone to print.

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