Windfall for Comair shareholders amid difficult conditions

2014-02-11 18:49

Shareholders in Comair are in for a rich payday next month, despite the airline operator facing the same troubles that led to state-owned airline group South African Airways’ (SAA) substantial loss for the previous financial year.

Today, Comair’s unaudited results showed it would pay five cents for each share following the group’s strong performance for the six months to end December, although it does not normally pay interim dividends.

With shares in the company numbering just over 440 million, the dividend works out to R22 million. This is 10.43% of its profit before tax, which reached R210.8 million compared with R108.7 million in the same six-month period in the previous year.

The biggest winner is BB Investment Company – an unofficial investment arm of the Bidvest group led by prominent businessman Brian Joffe – which held about 25% of the shares by last June. Oakbay Investments, owned by the controversial Gupta family, is also one of Comair’s largest shareholders.

Responsible for the big bump in Comair’s revenue was the upgrade of its smaller fleet with larger aircraft. In contrast, SAA is still to reissue a new request for proposals to replace its fuel-hungry fleet after Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba made it withdraw a previous request because it did not address localisation and industrialisation objectives.

Comair, which operates British Airways’ Southern African franchise and budget carrier, faced off a weakening rand (its maintenance costs are denominated in US dollars) and the higher fuel price that followed it to make a total profit of R153 million after tax – R47 million shy of the R200 million profit SAA finance boss Wolf Meyer said his group would have made for the year 2012/13, had the rand stayed stable.

Although SAA’s route network is more extensive than Comair’s – with international routes continuing to bleed SAA dry – a glance at the domestic market in which both operators play showed SAA had positive revenue numbers at R600 million, but this was negated by high fuel prices and its inability to adjust airfares because of the rotten economic climate.

Comair, in contrast, has raised airfares to keep pace with fuel prices and the feeble rand, and the pain is not going to end for consumers soon. Ticket prices would remain at levels necessary to recover escalating costs, it said, which would put pressure on market volumes.

“We do not anticipate any near-term recovery in local consumer spending,” said Comair boss Erik Venter. “The additional capacity provided by our fleet upgrade programme, as well as similar increases introduced by the state-owned airlines, has resulted in greater capacity in the domestic market than existed prior to the exit of our privately owned competitors in 2012.

“The resulting negative effect on seat occupancy levels has kept competitive pressure on ticket pricing. The expected entry of further airlines into the market will exacerbate the overcapacity.”

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