Qatar to buy stake in Italian Meridiana airline

Meridiana airlines has been looking for an "industry partner" for some time

 ROME -- A preliminary accord has been signed for a partnership between Qatar airways and Italian airline Meridiana, airline officials announced in a statement.

 Following discussions between Italian authorities and Meridiana management on finding a possible "industry partner," the airline said on Thursday that "the two parties [Qatar airways and Alisarda, which controls Meridiana] have agreed upon the pillars of the business proposition, which envisages a reinforcement of Meridiana with the objective of making it a solid player in the very competitive European aviation industry."

 The Memorandum of Understanding signed by the two parties outlines "the conditions precedent for the partnership," the completion of which is planned for the first half of 2016.

 Rules laid out in EU antitrust legislation prevent a foreign carrier taking a stake of more than 49 percent. John Strickland, director of London's JLS Consulting, said that such an acquisition would "strengthen Qatar’s access to the large Italian market and provide additional feed on to the carrier’s Doha services.”

 A recent visit to Italy by emir of Qatar Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who met Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, is assumed to have accelerated the agreements.

 Meridiana airline was established in 1963 with the aim of promoting tourism in the Italian island of Sardinia. It is now Italy's second-largest airline, owning a fleet of 20 aircraft and carrying an estimated four million passengers each year.

 The airline, since losing 155 million euros in 2013 when it last posted its numbers, was in need of state-backed restructuring. In 2014, Etihad Airways took a 49 percent stake in the Italian carrier in a 1.76 billion euro deal.

 Qatar airways is the state's national carrier and is one of the world's fastest growing airlines. Run directly by the royal Al Thani family, it already owns a 10 percent stake in the International Consolidated Airlines Group SA, the Anglo-Spanish owner of both British Airways and Iberia.

 The Qatar airline has not ruled out other high-potential deals with airlines requiring investment to realise their full potential. “If there are other airlines where you would need to make more of an investment to get into a stage where it drives value, we would look at that,” said Commercial Officer Hugh Dunleavy in an interview in the UAE on Wednesday.   ft