Latam Airlines files for bankruptcy after pandemic grounds flights across region

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LATAM Airlines Group, the continent's largest carrier, filed for US bankruptcy protection on Tuesday (May 26), becoming the world's largest carrier so far to seek an emergency reorganisation due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Chapter 11 filing allows Latam to keep operating. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (BLOOMBERG) - Latam Airlines Group, Latin America's largest air carrier, sought bankruptcy court protection in New York after the Covid-19 pandemic grounded flights across the region.

The Chapter 11 filing allows Latam to keep operating while the Chilean carrier works out a plan to pay creditors and turn around the business. Latam, whose shareholders include Chile's Cueto family and Delta Air Lines, continues to operate on a reduced schedule, and it has commitments for a bankruptcy loan of up to US$900 million (S$1.28 billion).

The money is coming from shareholders including the Cuetos, the Amaro family and Qatar Airways, according to a company statement. Latam also has about US$1.3 billion in cash on hand.

Airlines the world over - and those in Latin America in particular - have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, which triggered travel bans and made people reluctant to fly. Avianca Holdings, the largest air carrier in Colombia, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy earlier in May, burdened by the sharp drop in fliers and its own onerous debt load.

Latam's affiliates in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina aren't part of the bankruptcy case, which was filed in the Southern District of New York.

Still, the impact will be felt widely, with Santiago-based Latam previously serving more than 70 million passengers a year on more than 300 aircraft. It also carried more than US$7 billion of debt.

Latam has already eliminated more than 1,850 jobs in Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru in recent weeks from its global workforce of about 40,000 people, after cutting 95 per cent of its passenger operations. In some bankruptcy scenarios, an airline can reject aircraft leases, and Latam has more than 20 jetliners on order from Airbus and half a dozen from Boeing.

"Exceptional circumstances have led to a collapse in global demand and has not only brought aviation to a virtual standstill, but it has also changed the industry for the foreseeable future," chief executive officer Roberto Alvo said in a statement.

Latam listed assets of more than US$21 billion and total liabilities of almost US$18 billion in its bankruptcy petition.

So far, Latam hasn't had access to government bailout packages designed help offset virus-related distress. Talks are underway with governments in Chile, Brazil, Colombia and Peru about additional financing and assistance, the airline said.


The task was made more urgent this past weekend by U.S. President Donald Trump's order to restrict non-U.S. citizens arriving from Brazil to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Brazil accounts for about a third of Latam's revenue.

Latam traces its roots to Lan Airlines, founded in Chile in 1929 and privatized in 1989 during the last years of the Pinochet dictatorship. Latam was born in 2012 after Lan announced plans to merge with Tam for about US$3.3 billion two years earlier.

The Cueto family - which is Latam's largest shareholder and holds two seats on its board of directors - acquired a stake in 1992 and control of the business in 1994. At that time, another major shareholder was current Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who sold his own 26 per cent stake early in his first term as president in 2010.

Last year, Latam signed a US$2.25 billion pact to sell a stake to Delta Air Lines, expanding Delta's footprint in South America. The Chilean carrier has been planning to gradually ramp up flights over the next two months, with the goal of reaching 18 per cent of pre-crisis capacity in July.

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