BRUSSELS — The European Union has approved $4.7 billion in state aid for national carrier Air France as it struggles through the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, a decision the French government welcomed as "good news."
In return for the aid, the carrier has promised to make slots available to competitors at the busy Orly airport in Paris. "The public support will come with strings attached," said European Commission Vice President Margrethe Vestager.
Last year, Air France got 3 billion euros in direct loans from the French state, which will be converted into bonds as part of a recapitalization of up to 4 billion euros ($4.7 billion). In exchange, the government set conditions of profitability and more environmentally sustainable, less polluting policies.
In addition, the French state will participate in the capital increase of the holding company for the Air France-KLM airline alliance, to hold up to 29.9% of capital of the group, the French and Dutch governments said in a joint statement. The French state now holds 14.3% of the shares.
France and the Netherlands reaffirmed they are not considering nationalizing the group.
"This is good news for Air France and good news for the French," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said on France Inter radio on Tuesday. Air France will give up 18 takeoff and landing slots — about 4% of its slots — at Paris-Orly airport, he detailed.
The French government, the airline's largest single shareholder, has said it was essential to save the national carrier. Air France-KLM expects an operating loss of about 1.3 billion euros ($1.5 billion) for the first quarter of 2021.
"These first recapitalization measures are an important milestone for our group in this exceptionally challenging period," said Air France-KLM CEO Benjamin Smith in a statement. "They will provide Air France-KLM with greater stability to move forward when recovery starts, as large-scale vaccination progresses around the world and borders reopen."
KLM said in a statement that the company "will also need capital" and that the Dutch state is in talks with Brussels for that purpose. Tn 2020, the Dutch state supported KLM with a 1 billion-euro ($1.18 billion) loan.
Corbet reported from Paris. Mike Corder contributed reporting from The Hague, Netherlands.