EasyJet plans £1.2bn share sale after rejecting takeover approach

Budget carrier declines to name suitor but source says Wizz Air the firm in the frame

EasyJet rejected an unsolicited takeover offer. Photograph:  David Parry/PA Wire

EasyJet rejected an unsolicited takeover offer. Photograph: David Parry/PA Wire

 

EasyJet has rejected a takeover approach from Wizz Air that would have created a low-cost airline to rival Ryanair, opting instead to raise £1.2 billion (€1.4 bn) from shareholders and go it alone in an industry battling to recover from the pandemic.

EasyJet declined to name its suitor, but a source said it was Wizz Air. Wizz also declined to comment.

EasyJet said the all-share approach fundamentally undervalued its business and added the potential bidder had since said it was no longer interested in a deal.

The approach was “highly conditional in its nature which made it very uncertain in terms of the deliverability”, said easyJet chief executive Johan Lundgren, without giving details.

EasyJet said the fundraising, its second of the pandemic, would strengthen its balance sheet should the Covid-19 downturn continue and allow it to operate more aggressively once the recovery arrives. It has identified landing slots across Europe it could acquire, including in Paris, Amsterdam and Milan.

“I believe this is really a once in a lifetime opportunity,” said Mr Lundgren.

EasyJet, which during the pandemic sunk to its first ever annual loss and cut 4,500 jobs, wants to steal market share from legacy carriers like British Airways owner IAG and Air France-KLM as they retract their short-haul operations.

But it faces stiff competition from Ryanair, Europe’s largest budget airline, and rapidly expanding Wizz, both of which have recovered faster than easyJet this year.

Wizz is strong in eastern European destinations like Poland and Romania, while easyJet is well positioned in countries including Britain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and France. Adding to their potential good fit, both also operate all-Airbus fleets.

“EasyJet has always been a strategic target for Jozsef Varadi,” said a senior industry source of the Wizz chief executive.

Based on passenger data from last year, when fewer people travelled during the pandemic, a combination of the pair would still lag Ryanair by almost 20 million passengers.

Wizz, which counts aviation veteran Bill Franke as its chairman and his Indigo Partners as its biggest shareholder, has a market value of £5.1 billion, while easyJet is worth £3.3 billion pounds. Its share price has also outperformed easyJet’s.

Shares in Wizz had bounced back to pre-pandemic levels by November 2020 and hit an all-time high of 5,595 pence in March. EasyJet’s stock, by contrast, had recovered 70 per cent of its pre-pandemic value by May 2021 before starting another decline.

Rights issue

Illustrating the ongoing travel slump, easyJet said that over July-September it expected its capacity to be about 57 per cent of pre-pandemic levels. Ryanair flew about 75 per cent of its normal passenger numbers in August and Wizz flew more than 85 per cent that month.

For the last three months of 2021 easyJet expects to fly up to 60 per cent of 2019 levels, held back by Britain’s slower return to international travel than the rest of Europe.

The drawn out recovery has already forced easyJet to raise £5.5 billion from shareholders and debt markets, and by selling and leasing back aircraft. It also announced a new $400 million debt facility on Thursday.

In June 2020, easyJet raised £419 million from investors, but its biggest shareholder, founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou, did not participate. The new rights issue, raising £1.2 billion, represents a 35.8 per cent discount on the theoretical ex-rights price of 638 pence per share on September 8th.

Shares in easyJet, which were trading at about 1,550 pence before the pandemic hit in early 2020, were down 10 per cent at 710 pence at 10.05am, while Wizz was down 2 per cent.

James Halstead, managing partner at consulting firm Aviation Strategy, said the takeover announcement would normally mean easyJet was in play, but there were few alternative buyers due to high industry debt levels and competition issues.

The rights issue is underwritten by BNP Paribas, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, Santander and Societe Generale. – Reuters