By Ilona Wissenbach
FRANKFURT (Reuters) - German airline Lufthansa, responding to investor criticism of a state-backed rescue deal, warned it might need to apply for protection from creditors if the bailout plan failed to win shareholder approval.
Lufthansa's biggest shareholder, German billionaire Heinz Hermann Thiele, criticised the 9 billion euro ($10.1 billion) bailout, saying he had raised his stake in Lufthansa to over 15% and hoped alternative options could be explored.
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) newspaper, Thiele declined to tell FAZ whether he would vote against the deal that gives the German government a 20% stake in Lufthansa and two seats on its supervisory board, but said he was not satisfied with it.
Like the rest of the airline sector, Lufthansa has been hard hit by what is expected to be a protracted travel slump due to the coronavirus pandemic, forcing it to seek the bailout.
Lufthansa said on Wednesday its executive board expected attendance at its June 25 virtual general meeting to vote on the deal to be under 50%, which would mean two-thirds of those present would need to vote in favour.
"The board considers it possible that the stabilisation package could fail to achieve the two-thirds majority of votes cast," it said.
Lufthansa said it might possibly have to apply for protective shield proceedings under insolvency law a few days after the meeting if no other solution is found immediately.
Under German protective shield proceedings, a company's management remains in charge and gets up to three months to come up with a survival plan.
German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz said after Thiele's comments that he was not worried the deal could collapse and he urged shareholders to approve it.
Thiele, who is honorary chairman of Knorr-Bremse, declined to comment on Lufthansa's statement, a spokeswoman for the German brake manufacturer said.
Lufthansa shares closed down 1.25 after it was disclosed that Thiele now had a 15.5% stake.
"The German government has taken a high-risk bet. Its wish for the government to take a direct stake in Lufthansa is putting the jobs of hundreds of thousands of Lufthansa employees at risk. It's completely irresponsible," said Michael Theurer, a senior member of the opposition Free Democrats (FDP).
Vanessa Golz, who covers Lufthansa for investment fund Deka, which owns 0.9% of the airline, said there was no question it needed a bailout and time was pressing.
"If the position of the shareholders can be improved, this is to be welcomed, but with a sense of proportion. The task now is to draw up a future concept for a 'new Lufthansa' as quickly as possible. Otherwise there are only losers: Lufthansa employees, the taxpayer and the shareholders," she said.
Patrick Schuchter, portfolio manager at Union Investment, said his company would approve the state rescue, but wanted the interests of existing shareholders taken more into account in the design of the rescue package.
Lufthansa shareholders must register to attend the shareholder meeting by June 20 and if more than 50% attend, a simple majority would suffice, the airline said.
As of June 4, 85% of Lufthansa's shareholders were based in Germany.
Thiele said an indirect government participation via German state-owned development bank KfW could be an alternative to an outright stake.
Under the deal, the government could raise its stake to 25% plus one share in the event of a takeover attempt and the airline must transfer up to 24 takeoff and landing slots in Frankfurt and Munich to rivals.
With many of its planes grounded because of the pandemic, Lufthansa said on Monday it was seeking to strike agreements with worker representatives by June 22 on how to make job cuts equivalent to 22,000 full-time positions.($1 = 0.8877 euros)
(Reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin, Ilona Wissenbach in Frankfurt and Joern Poltz in Munich; Editing by Keith Weir, David Clarke and Elaine Hardcastle)