Pluna may bring in strategic investor to help fund fleet expansion

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Uruguay's Pluna is considering adding a strategic investor as part of a recapitalisation that will help fund expansion of the carrier's fleet from seven to 12 Bombardier regional jets.

The CEO of Pluna and majority owner Leadgate, Matias Campiani, says Leadgate has the option of bringing in a strategic investor to provide some of the $9 million in new capital it has agreed to pump into the carrier by June 2010. He says Pluna has held exploratory discussions with several regional airlines interested in acquiring a minority stake in Pluna and providing expertise to help the carrier expand.

ATI first reported in early January that Leadgate had sealed a new deal with the Uruguayan government to recapitalise the airline with a $12 million cash infusion. Under the deal Leadgate is responsible for providing $9 million and the Uruguayan government, which sold 75% of Pluna to Leadgate in 2007, the remaining $3 million.

"We're starting to prepare the capitalisation. We're only talking about a capitalisation. The airline is not for sale," Campiani tells ATI. "We can do it [cover the $9 million] ourselves or we can bring in an external party, a strategic investor, to add some know-how and share regional airline expertise."

Several South American media outlets reported over the weekend that Canadian regional carrier Jazz is looking at acquiring a stake in Pluna. But a Jazz spokeswoman says while there were some exploratory talks last year Jazz presently has no plans to pursue a stake in Pluna. Campiani says Leadgate has had exploratory talks with several regional carriers but it has not yet decided if the investment group will bring in a strategic investor or keep its entire 75% stake.

He says if a deal is forged to bring in a foreign airline as a minority investor Leadgate's 75% stake will be slightly reduced while the government will retain its entire 25% stake.

Campiani points out that Pluna has already developed relationships with several regional carriers over the last year to help it transition to a regional carrier with an all-Bombardier CRJ900 fleet. He says for example Jazz, which operates CRJ700s, last year loaned Pluna a fuel expert who helped the carrier bring down its fuel bill.

Pluna, which had operated a mix of Boeing 737s, 757s and 767s, took delivery of seven CRJ900 NextGen aircraft last year. The aircraft are an important part of a new business model that focuses on thinner routes and offering connections within the southern part of South America using Montevideo as a transit hub.

Pluna received options for eight additional CRJ900s as part of its original 2007 order for seven firm aircraft. Campiani says Pluna's business plan still envisions a fleet of 15 CRJs but the next delivery is now not expected until the fourth quarter of 2011. Pluna originally had some options for delivery slots in 2010 and earlier in 2011 but last year these were all rolled back.

"The capitalisation will be used to increase our fleet size," Campiani says. "We want to take it up to 15."

He adds for the additional aircraft Pluna is looking at leases but it has not yet sealed any deals with lessors. Campiani says Pluna may pass its options to a leasing company, which could buy the aircraft at the pre-negotiated price and lease it back to the carrier. He says Pluna is also willing to lease CRJs ordered directly by lessors.

Campiani says while Pluna "likes the economics of the -900" he will also consider offers for 70-seat CRJ700s. He emphatically says Pluna has no interest in the 50-seat CRJ200.

Pluna had earlier looked at acquiring Q400s but Campiani says turboprops are not currently being considered. "We're not going to mix," he says.