by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) Oct 23, 2012
A Chinese firm has acquired an interest in a French airline for the first time with the announcement on Tuesday that HNA has acquired nearly half of Aigle Azur.
HNA is a diversified group which owns the fourth-biggest Chinese airline Hainan Airlines, and has tried for some time to gain a foothold in Europe.
HNA has acquired 48 percent of Aigle Azur, the oldest airline in France, which now intends to open a route from Paris to Beijing for the beginning of the summer season in 2013.
The value of the deal was not disclosed.
The president of HNA, Chen Feng, said: "Aigle Azur is a very good, profitable business."
He said: "It is a small company which cannot develop without the help of a big firm. It is mutually beneficial."
The Chinese company, active in finance, tourism and transportation, was created in 2000, has assets totalling 36 billion euros ($46.7 billion) and achieved sales of 12 billion euros last year.
The deal was signed in the presence of journalists and the president of Aigle Azur, Arezki Idjerouidene, who said the agreement marked "a new departure" for the airline which could now look to a "new future."
Managing director Meziane Idjerouidene said that the route to Beijing would be the first development, and would be served by five weekly round trips by a long-haul Airbus A330 soon to be delivered to the company.
This marks the first such stake in a French airline by a Chinese company, and the shareholding is almost the maximum permitted by European Union rules which prevent a non-EU company from having a majority interest in an EU airline.
Aigle Azur was founded in 1946 just after World War II. It is a private company which claims to be the second-biggest French airline after the giant group Air France. It operates on niche markets, and historically on routes to Algeria.
The airline offers 23 destinations such as Mali, Portugal, Tunisia and Russia and operates 12 Airbus medium-range airliners.
In 2001 the airline was bought by French tourism and transportation company GoFast, headed by Arezki Idjerouidene.
In the year to March 31, it carried 1.8 million passengers on 300 regular weekly flights and achieved sales of 287 million euros ($372 million).
HNA owns 12 airlines in China and operates 410 airliners of which 270 fly for Hainan Airlines.
For several years Hainan Airlines has tried to gain a foothold in Europe, showing interest in German company Air Berlin and in the Hungarian firm Malev. German press reports say it was also interested in Belgian company Brussels Airlines.
Last year it acquired an interest in Turkish freight airline ACT Cargo Airlines.
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