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1ST LEAD German minister regrets EU commission's refusal to sign off Niki deal By Naveena Kottoor, dpa

By our dpa-correspondent and Europe Online    auf Facebook posten  Auf Twitter posten  
Berlin/Brussels (dpa) - German Economics Minister Brigitte Zypries roundly criticized on Thursday the European Commission‘s competition authorities over their failure to give the green light to German airliner Lufthansa‘s takeover offer for Austria‘s Niki airline.

Low-cost airline Niki announced on Wednesday it would cease operations immediately after Lufthansa withdrew its takeover offer for the group.

The move threw into doubt the jobs of about 1,000 employees at Niki, an offshoot of the now insolvent Air Berlin.

"The Federal Government greatly regrets that the European Commission apparently did not want to give its approval," said Zypries, who is currently on a trip to Gambia.

She said that Niki‘s insolvency had been triggered by Lufthansa‘s decision to scrap its takeover bid.  

"That was known, the commission knew that too," said Zypries.

In Brussels, however, the EU commissioner in charge of competition policy rejected any blame for the failed takeover and subsequent grounding of Niki.

"Niki‘s insolvency is regrettable and I would like to express my sympathies for Niki employees and passengers, who now face a great deal of uncertainty - about their plans to travel and for their jobs," Margrethe Vestager told reporters.

Vestager stressed, however, that with "other binding offers on the table" of the insolvency administrator, this "was not the only possible outcome."

She also said that while the commission did inform the authorities about its competition concerns, especially the fact that "Lufthansa would have become the only choice on around 50 routes," the commission could have still signed off the takeover, if Lufthansa had offered adequate remedies.

"Our job is to make sure that mergers do not make European consumers worse off. We assess mergers as they are presented to us," Vestager said.

"It was clear from the very start that Lufthansa‘s takeover of Niki posed serious risks: European consumers faced reduced choice and higher prices, long-term, to get to their holiday destinations."

The Austrian government launched an effort on Thursday to fly home thousands of Austrian Niki customers who are now stranded abroad.

Speaking on the sidelines of an EU summit in Brussels, Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern said his government was looking to save both the 1,000 jobs as well as the airline.

But he warned that a "quick solution" was unlikely, because every potential buyer would have to participate in a legal and commercial due diligence procedure.

In a first step, the transport ministry was booking seats on other airlines. If needed, special charter flights might be booked, a ministry spokesman said.

Also on Thursday, Lufthansa subsidiary Austrian Airlines offered jobs to Niki employees.

The flagship Austrian carrier invited Niki staff to apply, as it is currently trying to fill hundreds of positions, including 200 trained pilots and 300 flight attendants.

Meanwhile Niki‘s founder, the former car racer and airline manager Niki Lauda, told dpa he was looking into the possibility of taking over the insolvent airline.

"I am trying to get an appointment with the insolvency administrator as soon as possible to discuss further steps," he said.

Lauda has been signalling for months that he would be interested in once again owning the carrier, which he founded in 2003 and sold to now-insolvent Air Berlin in 2011.

The Niki group‘s administrator Lucas Floether said a large number of the passengers affected by the airline‘s insolvency would receive their money back for fares they had paid for or would now be rebooked by other carriers on alternative flights.

Of the 410,000 unused tickets, 210,000 have been booked through tour operators and would now be rebooked, said Floether.

Earlier, German airlines also announced a rescue operation for the tens of thousands of passengers stranded by the collapse of Niki.

Depending on the availability of seats, the Frankfurt-based holiday airline Condor said it would fly back to Germany free of charge any passengers who have directly booked with Niki.

In the meantime, Condor said it was planning to increase its present capacity to help those stranded.


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