Lauda lashes out on AUA over lawsuit

FlyNiki founder Niki Lauda has harshly criticised a competitor for calling on a court to investigate a decision affecting aviation regulations.

It emerged yesterday (Mon) that Austrian Airlines (AUA) filed a lawsuit at the Federal Constitutional Court (VfGH) regarding its number of flights between Vienna International Airport (VIA or VIE) and Ben Gurion International Airport (TLV) near Tel Aviv. The Austrian infrastructure ministry rejected AUA’s appeal to operate more often between Austria’s busiest aerodrome and the biggest airport of Israel. The ministry – which is headed by Doris Bures of the Social Democrats (SPÖ) – decided in disfavour of AUA since the airline was offering two daily flights between VIA and TLV already.

Lauda reacted outraged to the news. FlyNiki, which started doing business across Europe in 2003, was granted three daily links between VIA and TLV by the ministry. The airline’s founder said it was a “matchless step” in Austrian aviation history to get active in court against the federal infrastructure ministry. “This has never happened before,” the three-time Formula One (F1) champion said.

AUA announced earlier this month it planned to increase its number of flights to TLV from March. The airline, which suffered a loss of 65 million Euros in 2011, also said that there would soon be more connections on offer to destinations in Romania, Spain and Bulgaria. Aviation industry experts consider the announcements as a blunt attack on FlyNiki since AUA’s low-cost competitor is already operating on the routes the formerly state-owned company plans to become busier on.

Lauda, who resigned as FlyNiki chief last year to become a member of Air Berlin’s administrative board, claimed AUA’s losses would only rise further if the firm got the go-ahead for more flights to TLV due to its costly fleet. The FlyNiki founder also underlined that AUA was forking out more on salaries. Jaan Albrecht, who has headed AUA since November, recently declared his willingness to change this strategy. Albrecht, who headed Star Alliance before joining AUA, said it was not acceptable that AUA’s personnel costs were unchanged compared to amounts three years ago while the workforce level declined at the same time.

Albrecht, who once worked as a pilot, has plans to drastically reduce AUA pilots’ salaries by offering them to work under regulations their colleagues at AUA affiliate Tyrolean Airways (Austrian Arrows) were already doing for some years. Works council chiefs rejected the reform which would mean significant wage cuts – and cancelled previously arranged appointments with the AUA board. Albrecht reacted last week by cancelling the existing contracts of 2,100 pilots and cabin crew staff. Some observers feared that AUA staff would react with on-the-spot strikes to the decision. However, reports have it that unionists plan to accept the next invitation for talks with the airline’s executive board to find out whether a settlement is within reach.

AUA chiefs are pressurised by Lufthansa CEO Christoph Franz. The boss of the German aviation giant and Stefan Lauer, who heads the AUA supervisory board, expect the Viennese carrier to get back in the black this year. Lufthansa acquired AUA in 2009. Franz and Lauer allegedly consider slashing AUA’s flight plan and workforce level further if it fails to get back on its feet in the coming months. Business newspapers are speculating that AUA may end up as a Lufthansa’s regional charter airline if employees refuse to accept Albrecht’s austerity package.

Meanwhile, industrialist Hannes Androsch rubbished reports claiming he planned to take over AUA. “I am not the enemy of my assets,” the ex-Social Democratic (SPÖ) vice chancellor and finance minister replied in a recent interview why he ruled out an investment.