September 14, 2008

Behind-Closed-Doors Plan to Rescue XL Was Shot Down By Lenders

By Simon Evans; Mark Leftly

After tour operator goes into administration leaving 90,000 stranded, details emerge of attempts to secure a deal with two failing airlines

Banks scuppered a proposed three-way airlines tie-up that could have salvaged the collapsed XL Leisure last month, while speculation is mounting that the failed group might already have a new owner.

It is understood that management proposed the merger with two other failing firms which would have created a new entity, but potential backers dismissed the move as unworkable. "They tried to get something cooked up behind closed doors but it wasn't really ever likely to get off the ground when Zoom collapsed," said a source.

Phil Wyatt, chief executive of XL, the UK's third biggest tour operator, which runs its own airline, announced that the company had gone into administration on Friday, leaving an estimated 90,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad. The group was still accepting bookings as late as Thursday night. Zoom, a Canadian airline, ceased flying last month.

However, a leading banker has told The Independent on Sunday that he believed a party had already effectively taken control of XL by "trading debt before, during and after" events on Friday. It is rumoured that this party has bought up a vast amount of XL's debt, which is trading cheaply due to its severe problems, and has become the company's biggest creditor.

If true, this creditor will have "obtained the ownership of XL", said the source. "This is why people here aren't running around panicking about the future of XL."

Lenders to XL, Barclays and the Icelandic group Straumur, appointed Kroll, the corporate restructuring consultants, in August as the double whammy of higher fuel costs and lower passenger numbers hit home. Barclays is reported to have called in its loans a month ago.

Any change of ownership would have to be formalised through the administration process, which could take months.

Airline industry insiders said that XL's decline had been "on the radar for quite a while," adding that its "highly leveraged structure meant that it had been in stress since the spring".

"It was being touted around by a broker as a potential acquisition opportunity a while back but, to be honest, most people laughed at the idea," said one analyst. "I think the real scandal is that it was able to secure its licence again back in March just weeks before its bullet funding line was due to be rolled."

Noel Josephides, co-founder of Sunvil Holidays, which used XL, and chair of the Association of Independent Tour Operators, said: "This was an accident waiting to happen. Until the Government changes its thinking we are going to get plenty more of this."

Speculation will now centre on other likely casualties in the airline and leisure sector, with one leading insolvency group, Begbies Traynor, warning that nine UK airlines are on the brink. XL's failure follows the collapse of several UK airlines this year, including Eos, Maxjet, Silverjet and Oasis. British Airways' chief executive, Willie Walsh, said on Friday that he believed there were as many as 30 weak airlines that would struggle to survive.

It's thought that as many as 80 airlines operating out of UK airports have fallen behind in paying departure tax receipts to the Government. "The economics of this industry simply don't add up," said an analyst. "We will have to see a lot of firms get very cosy, very quickly or else we'll have a lot more failures on our hands."

On Friday it emerged that Lufthansa, the German airline, is mulling an alliance with BMI and Virgin to counter tie-ups between rivals including BA's merger with Iberia and its strategic alliance with American Airlines.

(c) 2008 Independent on Sunday, The. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All rights Reserved.