War of words breaks out over collapse of Air Liberté-AOM
France's Marine-Wendel, the majority shareholder of the embattled French airline, Air Liberté-AOM, has accused the Swissair Group and the French transport minister, Jean-Claude Gayssot, of "provoking and accelerating the collapse" of the airline.
Air Liberté-AOM filed for bankruptcy on Friday after last ditch efforts to solve its financial crisis failed. The loss-making carrier said it had sufficient funds to continue operations for the start of the peak holiday season at the end of June.
In a statement on Friday, the Swissair Group, which owns a 49.5 per cent stake in the airline, said it had been prepared to pay two thirds of a SFr700 million ($396 million) restructuring package if Marine-Wendel had taken on the remaining costs. The French company said it was not prepared to do so.
Speaking in Paris, Ernest-Antoine Seillière, the head of Marine-Wendel, said he would leave it up to the courts to decide who was to blame for the whole debacle.
Seillière accused the Swissair Group of "not conducting itself in a manner worthy of a major company". He also said Gayssot was guilty of making "unfair and political" attacks on him.
"Swissair gave a formal undertaking that it would take on the financial responsibility for Air Liberté," said Seillière. "The group guaranteed that it would not turn to its French shareholder for a fresh round of funding."
Seillière said he would deal with the Swissair Group's alleged breach of contract in the courts, adding that he would present as evidence the original contract signed between the two firms last year.
The Swissair Group claims that the contract refers to a different restructuring plan to the one which has been discussed in recent weeks, and is therefore redundant.
The Swissair Group firmly rejected Seillière's criticisms, arguing that Marine-Wendel was also directly responsible, as the majority shareholder, for Air Liberté-AOM.
"Swissair did everything it could to find a solution, notably in drawing up a restructuring plan," said Siro Barino, a spokesman for the company. "We were ready to spend FFr2 million (SFr480 million), but M Seillière, who would have had to find the remaining FFr1 million, was not prepared to spend one centime."
Barino added that the French company held three of the seven seats on Air Liberté-AOM's board of directors against the Swissair Group's two seats.
In a related development, Europe's second-largest discount airline, easyJet, said on Friday it was interested in buying parts of Air Liberté-AOM to boost its presence at Paris Orly airport.
British-based easyJet said it was keen to establish Orly as a major European operating base and bring low-cost flights to the French market and was seeking takeoff and landing slots, as well as staff.
A spokesman said the company was interested in buying Air Liberté - AOM's 30 flight slots at Orly. A deal could save hundreds of jobs, he added.
However, the spokesman declined to say how much easyJet was prepared to pay for the assets and said the company was not prepared to take on any of Air Liberté-AOM debts.
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