American Airlines on Thursday said it recently received an unsolicited offer from Qatar Airways about the airlines intention to acquire at least a 10 percent stake in American, a move that not many people could have predicted.
In a filing early Thursday, American said Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar Al Baker told it of the plan to acquire up to a 10% stake. In a separate statement, Qatar Airways said it would seek to build a 4.75% stake initially, then add to that after approval from American’s board and U.S. regulators. It said it sees American as a “strong investment opportunity”, but said that it does not intend to make change at American if its stake goes through in terms of operations. American has said it will respond to the notice “in due course”, but has not taken any action.
Foreign ownership and investments in U.S. airlines are rare, however it does not occur often. U.S. law allows foreigners to hold up to 25% of voting shares and 49% economic interest in a U.S airline. British Airways once held a 25% stake in US Airways, while Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson, a British citizen, owned a large minority stake in Virgin America.
On the surface, Qatar’s move is similar to its investment in British Airways’ parent IAG (International Airlines Group). Qatar Airways initially acquired 9.9% in IAG in 2015, before raising its stake to about 20% in several share purchases. While it hasn’t interfered with running the airline or taken a board seat, cooperation between Qatar Airways and British Airways has blossomed. Qatar Airways has taken stakes in other airlines including South America LATAM Airlines Group. It also is taking a stake in Italy’s Meridiana and has said it wanted to set up a career in India.
Qatar’s move could be seen as an attempt to strengthen itself against its other Middle East competitors, following in the steps of Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airways, which owns shares in many airlines and has network agreements with each under the name Etihad Airways Partners. However, Qatar’s investment in fellow Oneworld partners could be seen as trying to strengthen its frayed ties with its partners, especially in the wake of European and American airlines accusing airlines in the Middle East of being the recipients of government funding.
This announcement comes as Qatar is subject to an international blockade by surrounding Persian Gulf nations, restricting imports/exports and travel between Qatar and their countries. In addition, the airspace for flights operating to Qatar is limited, as the surrounding nations besides Iran have refused to allow Qatari aircraft to fly though. Approximately 10% of Qatar Airways’ daily operations have been cancelled and most flights are affected with longer flying times of between five minutes and two hours, depending on the destination.
While CEO Doug Parker said he is “always excited to hear that people believe American is a great investment,” he also said that American is dead set on convincing the U.S. government that state support for Qatar Airways and the two other large Gulf airlines is hurting the U.S. industry and American jobs. The proposed investment “is confusing to our team and we don’t like that,” Mr. Parker said.