Ryanair has approached Virgin Atlantic and other carriers about making Aer Lingus slots at Heathrow available for sale if it succeeds in a takeover bid for its Irish rival.
The budget giant owns just under 30% of Aer Lingus and is in talks with the European Commission on potential competition remedies if a €694 million (£545 million) bid for Aer Lingus is successful.
Aer Lingus has 3.5% of slots at Heathrow, where BA now holds in excess of half the slots since its takeover of BMI.
Virgin Atlantic would love to get hold of the Aer Lingus slots, which would almost double the number it holds – although Ryanair would be unlikely to surrender them all unless it intends to pull Aer Lingus out of Heathrow altogether.
It seems more likely Ryanair is attempting to build support for its bid given the forces ranged against it. Brussels blocked a previous Ryanair bid for Aer Lingus in 2006 and Ryanair withdrew a second bid in 2008 in anticipation it would be blocked.
The Irish government, which owns 25% of Aer Lingus, has opposed previous Ryanair bids and Aer Lingus has declared the current bid “not credible”, arguing the resulting monopoly would be greater than when the EC previously blocked the bid.
Etihad Airways confirmed it would consider purchasing Ryanair’s stake if offered, to add to its 3% share in Aer Lingus. However, the Abu Dhabi-based carrier said there had been no talks with Ryanair.
An Etihad spokesman said: “If approached by Ryanair we would be happy to have a discussion about the stake and evaluate the opportunity.”
Etihad has previously expressed interest in the Irish government’s stake, but could not buy both because of EC restrictions on foreign ownership.
However, it might prefer to work with Dublin as a partner shareholder rather than with Ryanair, which dismissed as “rumour and speculation” reports that it proposes to pull Aer Lingus off a series of Dublin routes if it gains control.
The EC is expected to issue a ruling on the takeover at the end of August.