Audacious move for AerCap’s Kelly hinges on aviation rebound

Deal to buy GE’s jet keasing business doubles the size of the company

Aengus Kelly, chief executive of  AerCap Holdings. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Aengus Kelly, chief executive of AerCap Holdings. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Aengus Kelly knows a bargain when he sees one.

The chief executive officer of aircraft leasing company AerCap made his most audacious move yet in a career spanning more than two decades, when Kelly agreed on March 10th to buy General Electric’s jet-leasing business.

The deal doubles the size of his company, already the world’s largest aircraft lessor, by relying on a familiar playbook: pry a valuable financial asset from an owner with little use for it anymore or a desire to minimise financial risk.

It’s a move Mr Kelly already pulled off back in 2014 when he bought AIG’s aircraft leasing subsidiary, as the giant insurance company emerged from a bruising brush with collapse after the financial crisis and needed to slim down.

Mr Kelly’s appetite for another splashy deal is grounded in his optimism that after a year of hemorrhaging, the aviation industry is ready for a rebound – and AerCap has the planes to get people moving again.

“Now is the time we should be looking for opportunity because the signs are there that the inevitable upturn in aviation is coming,” said Mr Kelly in an interview, after announcing the transaction that’s valued at $24 billion in cash plus 111.5 million shares.

In a twist of corporate fate, the deal reunites assets that existed under a single roof three decades ago. AerCap and Gecas, as GE’s aircraft finance business is known, both emerged from the wreckage of Ireland’s Guinness Peat Aviation. Once the world’s biggest lessor, it effectively collapsed after a downturn in aviation and the first Gulf War in the early 1990s sank its proposed IPO.

Aside from a shared history, Kelly said Gecas had the same discipline in assembling its aircraft portfolio, helping insulate them from the pandemic slump hitting hardest in the wide-body segment. By value, the combined fleet will be composed of almost 60 per cent single-aisle aircraft that are easier to market with airlines, as well as 56 per cent newer, fuel efficient models.

Udvar-Hazy

The aircraft leasing industry as it exists today was pioneered by Steve Udvar-Hazy, who built International Lease Finance Corp in the 1970s and sold it to AIG in 1990. Mr Hazy, a billionaire and self-proclaimed godfather of the industry, left ILFC in 2010 and went on to found Air Lease Corp, where he remains chairman.

The pandemic has put lessors like AerCap in the spotlight as airlines increasingly seek a partner to finance their aircraft. It’s a win-win proposition when business is booming, but it can also saddle an airline with steep leasing costs when activity dries up and planes go into storage, as has been the case in the past year.

While Mr Kelly said he’s optimistic about a rebound, he’s in no rush to place new orders, focusing instead on delivering the existing portfolio to airline customers. Over time, AerCap may consider adding more of Boeing’s 737 Max, he said.

Making such a bold bet as Mr Kelly has done with GE doesn’t come without risk. The shares sank as much 9.6 per cent, while Fitch placed AerCap’s credit rating – already just one notch above junk – on review for a possible downgrade. It cited the debt required to replace the bridge financing, as well as the ongoing impact of the pandemic given that one-third of the combined company’s fleet is currently grounded.

For now, Mr Kelly remains bullish on the outlook, promising that “when summer comes, you’ll see a lot of those back in the air. – Bloomberg