Lufthansa considers its options for BMI

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A strategic pawn has been placed in the middle of the Heathrow airport power struggle by Lufthansa, as it investigates the possibility of selling British Midland International.

By appointing investment bank Morgan Stanley to look into the potential sale of the loss-making subsidiary, the German carrier is finally addressing a long-standing problem. Meanwhile, other airlines will consider the prudence of a takeover move.

On offer is the second-largest number of slots at Heathrow - an invaluable commodity at one of the world's busiest international airports which is bursting at the seams.

bmi a321, keith blincow/airteamimages.com 

Airport Coordination Limited reported BMI's share of Heathrow's slots as being roughly 8.4% of the total capacity, in its Heathrow summer 2011 start of season report.

Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways parent International Airlines Group has been open about his interest in BMI, telling Airline Business earlier this year: "It's no secret that we've been interested in BMI, but largely because of its slot ­position at Heathrow, rather than the brand."

Andrew Lobbenberg, European airline research analyst at RBS, feels that a purchase of BMI by IAG would be the most natural fit. With British Airways owning approximately 40% of the Heathrow slots, such a move would give it control of around half the airport's total. He is less convinced by the viability of Virgin Atlantic Airways' assertion that it continues "to have a close interest in a combination with BMI".

He explains that it is not obvious how a combination of BMI and Virgin could be a successful or profitable enough business to compete against BA.

Lobbenberg also questions whether Virgin could indeed afford such a purchase. Citi Investment Research's (CIR) break-up analysis values BMI's equity at £106-248 million ($168-392 million). "Though, if it could find a new backer with deep pockets and the appetite, of course its ability to buy BMI could be transformed," he adds.

Lobbenberg says he is "very unsure about what the industrial logic would be of any combination of BMI with a Gulf carrier".

CIR questions whether any buyer would be interested in purchasing BMI in its entirety, because the carrier's three distinct divisions - BMI, BMI Regional and BMIbaby - do not match with most other airline groups, and that Lufthansa must therefore consider each separately.

The final intriguing development of the saga is that the news came at the same time as the announcement that Lufthansa's Stefan Lauer, chief officer of Lufthansa's subsidiary airlines, will be stepping down from the role of chairman of BMI.

In his place, BMI appointed Vagn Ove Sørensen, the former deputy chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines.