Aerolíneas Argentinas S.A.
Sales: $1 billion (2005 est.)
NAIC: 481111 Scheduled Passenger Air Transportation; 481211 Nonscheduled Chartered Passenger Air Transportation; 488119 Other Airport Operations
Aerolíneas Argentinas S.A. is Argentina's leading airline, flown by more than five million passengers a year. The carrier struggled under foreign ownership through the 1990s, accumulating massive debts. This burden was reduced after Air Comet, a unit of Spanish tour operator Grupo Marsans, acquired control of Aerolíneas Argentinas in 2001. Since then, the company has returned to profitability and begun rebuilding and expanding its international route network.
Argentine civil aviation has its roots in the French airmail line Aéropostale and its South American subsidiaries, one of which was Aeroposta Argentina. Aeroposta was established in 1927 primarily as a mail carrier. Early flights in this country were often perilous; rudimentary equipment, strong winds, and poor landing strips inspired flying adventures of the kind recounted by the famous French aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. Moreover, the company was battered by worldwide economic depression in the early 1930s, during which time the French government withdrew much of its financial support for parent company Aéropostale. In 1932, control of Aeroposta underwent several changes, including temporary ownership by the Argentinian post office, but the company ultimately survived as Aeroposta Argentina, S.A., the national airline of Argentina. In 1937, Aeroposta's economic woes were somewhat allayed when Argentina's Pueyrredon financial group, a conglomerate of banks and insurance companies, bought out the remaining French interests in the line. Although Aeroposta came under the control of Ernesto Pueyrredon, it also continued to receive a subsidy from the Argentinian government.
Beginning in the late 1930s, other airlines were starting to crop up in Argentina. In 1946, the government of Argentina imposed some organization on the country's airlines (and fended off competition from foreign airlines, such as the U.S. based PANAGRA), forming a system of mixed-stock companies. Aside from Aeroposta, three new joint stock companies were created out of the airlines that had sprung up in the 1930s. The first was FAMA (Flota Aérea Mercante Argentina), which set the precedent for the nation's international air service. ALFA (Aviaciín del Litoral Fluvial Argentina) was formed by merging one private, one military, and one civil airline. ZONDA (Zonas Oeste y Norte de Aerolíneas Argentinas) took over PANAGRA's domestic trade network in the northwest.
1950s–70s: Striving to Stay Aloft Amidst Government Upheaval
On May 3, 1949, a new nationalistic government in Argentina, led by Juan Perón, merged the four joint-stock companies—Aeroposta Argentina, FAMA, ALFA, and ZONDA—into the new state airline, Aerolíneas Argentinas. This monopoly would last until 1956. After working to integrate the aircraft and routes of all four operations, Aerolíneas Argentinas achieved operating efficiencies and became a member of the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
When a military coup ousted Perón, however, a new provisional government liberalized the aviation market again. Competition ensued as Argentinian investors formed new airlines. Privately backed Transcontinental, S.A., for example, provided six years of competition before financial woes resulted in its being taken over by Austral, another new private carrier. Aerolíneas Ini and Transatlantica were two other competitors for Aerolíneas Argentina's business during this period.
None of the new entrants had the experience or resources of Aerolíneas Argentinas (AR). AR was able to launch South America's first commercial jets in March 1959: six Comet IVs received to settle a bill for harboring British troops during World War II. Within a couple of years, however, half of these had crashed, and though no fatalities were reported the company's president was forced to resign. Under new leadership, AR continued to expand and modernize its fleet, retiring older aircraft and establishing service to popular resort destinations.
By the 1960s, AR was the leading South American airline, flying more than 600 million passenger-kilometers a year. Financial and managerial woes were emerging, however. In 1963, the airline dropped out of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a cartel of world airlines, when that organization denied AR the right to impose a surcharge for flights on jets. Both AR and its competitor Austral had been losing money on the regulated domestic fares and had been granted government subsidies to help offset the losses. A new board of directors took over AR in June 1964 amid charges of mismanagement and corruption at the airline. The next year, the new leaders set about improving the airline's fleet, establishing a relationship with Boeing, by ordering several of that company's 707s, which would last for many years. AR rejoined the IATA during this time. The year 1966 saw yet another change of administration.
In 1967, in order that AR and Austral might co-exist under government control, a new Argentinian president divvied up domestic air routes between Austral-A.L.A.(Aerotransportes Litoral Argentina, its new partner) and AR. By now, AR's Boeing 707s were flying the world's longest nonstop scheduled flight at the time: 5,700 miles from Rio de Janeiro to Rome. Service to New York also had begun, and by the end of the decade, AR had obtained clearance to open service to the West Coast of the United States.
In 1972, Argentinian and U.S. authorities briefly locked horns over the rights of Pan American and Braniff airlines to serve Argentina. When Argentina officials denied these American airlines the right to expand their routes in Argentina, the U.S. government responded by attempting to curb AR's presence in the United States. Settlements over the routes were eventually made, and AR was able to add nonstop service to Miami and Cape Town in 1973, the latter in conjunction with South African Airways. In December, new management installed by the returning Juan Perón (the second executive shuffle in a year) gave the airline a new emphasis on commercial viability in route selection and fare determination.
Although Perón died in 1974 and his wife, Isobel Perón, was overthrown in 1976, the structure of the airline remained relatively unchanged. The company continued to weather upheavals in management, intense competition from Austral, and ever-changing government policies. AR began operating massive Boeing 747 widebody jets to Madrid in January 1977, launching a period of expansion. After testing the route with charters, AR pioneered the first scheduled (monthly) service across Antarctica, to Auckland, New Zealand. AR began the 1980s as the third busiest airline in South America after VARIG and Mexicana, flying six billion passenger-kilometers a year.
The Path to Privatization in the 1980s
The disastrous Falklands War in April 1982 did not help Argentina's economy, which fell apart in the mid-1970s during Isobel Perón's rule. Inflation reached triple or quadruple digits, depending upon the estimate, and in 1986 the government of Argentina planned for the privatization of several large companies in order to satisfy its creditors. AR was to be one of the first.
In February 1988, the Directory of Public Enterprises (DEP) announced the sale of 40 percent of AR to SAS for $204 million. Cielos del Sur, which owned Austral, itself privatized in 1987, put forth an informal but well publicized counteroffer with the support of Swissair and Alitalia. SAS withdrew its bid in December 1988 after a highly politicized debate pitting President Raul Alfonsín against incumbent Carlos Menem. The Cielos del Sur group was not able to finalize its bid, however, due to a lack of financial disclosures from the government. Then, Swissair withdrew from the group, scuttling the offer. Menem renewed efforts to find a buyer after winning office in May 1989.
Menem's efforts were frustrated by the company's poor financial health; it was losing $10 million a month in 1990, which was a terrible year for the airline industry as a whole, with most of the world's major carriers posting losses. Nevertheless, a consortium led by Spain's carrier Iberia made a bid in June 1990, kicking off AR's tortuous, extended privatization process. In its initial offer, Iberia would control 30 percent, three Spanish banks another 19 percent, Argentinian investors 36 percent, employees 10 percent, and the government 5 percent, resulting in 51 percent Argentine ownership. Iberia and its partners agreed to pay more than $2 billion for their 85 percent share, including a $130 million initial cash payment. Not included in the new deal were AR's lucrative ramp service and duty-free businesses.
Could we ever have imagined, fifty years ago, such evolution, such route development? Was it a drive from within to fly across our vast country that gave us the impulse to reach out to the world? Was it the knowledge of our pilots or the spirit of the Argentines that gave this impulse to Aerolíneas? One thing we do know for sure is that the word 'impossible' does not exist. What we do know is that Aerolíneas, either with its present equipment or with the super-'Jumbos' yet to come, will expand into the future, on internal or overseas routes, and will be the main link for the business traveller and tourist alike with the rest of the world.
Several factors soured the deal for Iberia once it was committed to the buyout. When Enrique Pescarmon sold Cielos del Sur (and thus Austral) to Iberia in March 1991, leaving the partnership, his share was split between other Argentinian interests. Mounting losses through 1992 (when AR lost $189 million on revenues of $911 million) necessitated a capital infusion from the Spaniards and the Argentine government, diluting other shareholdings of the private local investors. The Spanish holdings, however, remained the same. The government owned 43 percent, which it intended to reduce to 10 percent once the market allowed. In addition, $2.1 billion of foreign debt, part of Iberia's purchase requirement, ended up costing more than originally estimated. Finally, postponed layoffs of 775 workers incited labor protests. Moreover, Iberia suffered serious losses at home, $264 million on 1992 revenues of $3.6 billion.
New Investors in the 1990s
As costly as it proved to Iberia, AR still controlled one-third of South America's air traffic, making it a somewhat attractive investment to global competitors. Since Iberia needed government subsidies for its own survival, the European Commission mandated that it reduce its holdings in AR. Merrill Lynch and Bankers Trust bought into the company in 1996, and American Airlines parent AMR Corporation beat out Continental to take a 10 percent share of Interinvest, AR's holding company, in 1998.
The number-crunching methodology of American Airlines (AA) brought quite a culture change to the airline, accustomed to decidedly less formal decision-making. AA managers immediately set out to reduce short-term debt of about $700 million and slashed the payroll. They also used AA standards to improve customer service, starting out a process that could make AR eligible for membership in the OneWorld global alliance. Reducing the number of aircraft types was also a priority; still, the company ordered a dozen Airbus A340s, a type new to Latin America, for its long-haul needs.
AR faced stiff international competition from LAN Chile and VARIG. New open skies agreements cleared the way for Continental and Delta into the Argentine market as well. A recession at home compounded the carrier's difficulties in 1999, even as local cut-rate upstarts such as Southern Winds Líneas Aéreas plagued the airline. AR's owners had failed to find a buyer, or a way out, by the end of December. Interinvest, which then owned 85 percent of AR, was in turn 80 percent owned by the Spanish government via SEPI (Sociedad Estatal de Participaciones Industriales), 10 percent owned by Iberia, and 10 percent by AA. Employees owned 10 percent of AR and the Argentine government the remaining 5 percent. Nevertheless, company literature remained optimistic. Losses for 1999 reached $240 million as the Latin American aviation industry struggled through a recession.
Acquisition by Marsans in 2001
American Airlines stopped managing the airline in 2000. By the end of the year, Aerolíneas Argentinas had accumulated debts of nearly $1 billion. In October 2000, the Spanish government agreed to invest an additional $650 million in the airline.
SEPI proffered a restructuring plan that focused on cutting costs through scaling back services and cutting jobs and wages. Most of the airline's unions, reported Airline Business, preferred to have AR recapitalized and an international strategic partner enlisted, while expanding routes.
The fate of 6,700 employees at stake made the airline's fate a contentious political issue. As negotiations between the governments of Argentina and Spain dragged on, AR focused on preserving enough cash to keep flying. By the middle of 2001, AR was operating only half its scheduled international routes.
SEPI decided to sell off the airline, first placing it in bankruptcy protection, and in October 2001 chose Air Comet, a partial subsidiary of privately owned Spanish tour operator Grupo Marsans, from a field of several bidders. As part of the deal, Air Comet/Marsans agreed to keep all of the airline's employees on the payroll for two years. Marsans was acquiring 92 percent of shares in exchange for assuming half of AR's $1.8 billion debt. Marsans was planning to raise additional capital from private investors in Argentina, as well as through eventual international stock offerings.
LatinFinance remarked that this was AR's second privatization, by a second government. The publication also noted that the timing of the deal, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, was challenging. According to Latin Trade, however, Antonio Mata, AR's new head, was able to negotiate an average 60 percent discount with suppliers in the degraded aviation market. Mata was a veteran of Spain's tourism industry and founder of Air Comet.
The devaluation of the Argentine peso in 2001 boosted tourism, observed Latin Trade. The next year, Aerolíneas Argentinas was able to post its first operating profit in a quarter-century, about $22 million. AR had an 85 percent market share on domestic routes.
Passenger count rose 40 percent to 5.1 million in 2003. To help ward off competition from upstart airlines catering to the business crowd, a new "Executive Jet" service was unveiled during the year. This program used a fleet of three Boeing 737s modified to carry just 30 passengers in an extra level of comfort.
- Aerolíneas Argentinas (AR) is created by the Juan Perón administration out of four existing airlines.
- AR introduces South America's first commercial jets.
- AR's Boeing 707s operate the world's longest non-stop scheduled flight.
- Widebody Boeing 747 service to Madrid begins; AR pioneers scheduled flights across Antarctica.
- The Falklands War badly affects Argentina's economy.
- SAS offers an unsuccessful bid for 40 percent of AR.
- A group led by Spanish carrier Iberia agrees to pay $2 billion for 85 percent of AR.
- AMR Corp. buys 10 percent of Interinvest, AR's holding company.
- The Iberia-led group unsuccessfully tries to sell off its stake.
- Spanish tour operator Grupo Marsans acquires control of the airline.
- AR posts its first operating profit in 25 years.
- A new Executive Jet service is unveiled using modified Boeing 737s.
- New headquarters are constructed as the airline expands.
In 2004, the company began an ambitious $557 million fleet renewal plan that would see 49 aircraft acquired in three years. New aircraft included the most advanced Boeing 747 variant.
At the same time, the airline was adding a $3 million flight simulator to train Boeing 737 pilots for Aerolíneas Argentinas and other local airlines. AR had become more self-reliant in maintenance work.
A new $100 million headquarters called "Ciudad Aerolineas" was being built. The company was expanding throughout the South American region, adding service to Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Parent company Marsans was creating a new Chilean airline, Aerolineas del Sur, to operate in Aerolíneas Argentinas colors. A plan to acquire Pluna, a Uruguayan airline controlled by VARIG, was canceled.
Aerohandling S.A.; Jet Paq S.A.
Principal Operating Units
Aerolíneas Cargo; Austral Líneas Aéreas.
LAN Chile S.A.; Southern Winds Airlines; TAM Linhas Aéreas S.A.; VARIG S.A.
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Grosse, Robert, "A Privatization Nightmare: Aerolíneas Argentinas," in Privatizing Monopolies: Lessons from the Telecommunications and Transport Sectors in Latin America, edited by Ravi Ramamurti, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996.
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——, "Aerolineas Tries to Find Middle Ground," Airline Business, October 1, 2000, p. 16.
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——, "Tango Twosome," Air Transport World, December 1997, pp. 61–64.
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Warn, Ken, "SEPI in Aerolineas Rescue Plan," Financial Times (London), Companies & Finance: The Americas, June 14, 2000, p. 34.
—Frederick C. Ingram