Tokyo: Japan Airlines Corp (JAL) filed for bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, owing more than $25 billion, and vowed to slash 15,700 jobs and unprofitable routes as it tries to survive volatile fuel costs and fickle flyers.
JAL, Asia’s largest airline by revenues, will remain in the skies thanks to nearly ¥1 trillion ($11 billion) in state-backed support and must go through a sweeping restructuring under a new board and management.
Shareholders will be wiped out and creditors will forgive ¥730 billion in debt, including a ¥350 billion debt waiver from banks, as part of the deal with the fund, the Enterprise Turnaround Initiative Corp of Japan (ETIC).
Bankruptcy will only be the beginning for an airline with depleted capital, facing headwinds such as rising fuel prices and shrinking passenger numbers, on top of hefty restructuring costs.
JAL, which has now been bailed out by the Japanese government four times in the past 10 years, will replace many of its older and less fuel-efficient planes. It also faces tough decisions about foreign capital and alliances.
“We’re now finding out that things were a bit worse than expected,” said Koichi Ogawa, chief portfolio manager at Daiwa SB Investments. “What this shows is that the nation won’t just take total care of a company. They’ve now said they’ll let badly-run companies fail.
JAL’s ¥2.3 trillion bankruptcy ranks as Japan’s fourth-largest ever and its biggest by a non-financial firm.
The airline’s debt figure was as of the end of September, meaning the actual number could be higher. Its core airline business had at least ¥1.5 trillion in debt as of the same period.
Shares of JAL, which have fallen more than 90% since the start of the month, closed flat at ¥5 after trading down ¥2 to ¥3. They will be delisted on 20 February, according to the stock exchange.
With a market value of about $150 million, JAL is now smaller than minor carriers Croatia Airlines and Jazeera Airways and is worth less than one Boeing 747.
“I thought that there was no way that JAL would fail,” said Akiko Saito, a 63-year-old retiree returning from Sydney to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. “Even when the value of my JAL shares fell from ¥800,000 to below ¥120,000, I was convinced that it would recover, and I held on to my stock.”
JAL bonds maturing in 2013 were priced at the equivalent of just 27.8 cents on the dollar, versus around 70 cents last month, but traders said there was little trading appetite for the bonds on Tuesday.
The dollar fell to its session low against the yen on the news.
The move could make rival All Nippon Airways Co Japan’s new flagship carrier, according to some analysts. Shares in ANA fell 4.2% after rallying to a six-month high last week.
“I am confident that we will win against intensifying competition and once again become the airline that represents Japan,” JAL president Haruka Nishimatu told a press conference. “We have received a last chance from the government, financial institutions, shareholders and the people.”
The “tough love” for JAL by Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s four-month-old Democratic Party-led government signals a shift from previous governments under the long-dominant Liberal Democratic Party, which had authored the previous JAL bailouts.
Hatoyama’s government said it would provide the necessary support for JAL during its restructuring.
Following similar bankruptcies by overseas airlines such as Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, JAL plans to slash its 51,862 workforce to 36,201 and to cut 14 international routes and 17 domestic routes in three years.
The ETIC will support the carrier with about ¥300 billion in capital. The ETIC and the Development Bank of Japan will together provide a ¥600 billion credit line.
Fuel hedging contracts may also be affected by a bankruptcy filing. JAL uses mostly Brent forward contracts and about ¥40 billion is estimated to be exposed in the event of an automatic termination, a source familiar with the matter said.
JAL needs to do what it has long put off: Focus on its main business and cut operations it doesn’t need, said Andrew Miller, chief executive officer of CAPA Consulting.
“I would have a fire sale - get rid of the family silver, sell everything that is non-core and focus in on the core and make that work efficiently,” he said.
Alliance in question
JAL will also need to make a decision about competing aid offers from Oneworld alliance partner American Airlines and rival Delta, which wants to woo JAL to its SkyTeam group.
The carrier has spent two decades trying to recover public trust following a 1985 crash that became the world’s worst single aircraft disaster in history, claiming 520 lives.
Kazuo Inamori, the 77-year-old founder of electronics maker Kyocera Corp, was tapped last week to become JAL’s new chief executive officer to oversee its restructuring.
JAL’s restructuring plan also calls for increasing fuel-efficiency in its fleet, replacing all 37 of its B747-400 jets and 16 MD90s, both supplied by Boeing, with 33 small jets and 17 regional ones.
“I think a revival of JAL will be good for manufacturers such as Mitsubishi Heavy industries which is developing new regional jets,” said Yasuhiro Matsumoto, credit analyst at Shinsei Securities.