Merger talks between British Airways and Iberia have been given a boost following the sudden departure of the Spanish flag carrier’s chairman.
Fernando Conte has vacated the top job, with the official line that he wanted to step down before his 60th birthday next year. But according to company sources he was ousted because of a lack of progress in merger talks with BA.
Negotiations between the two airlines have ground to a halt over their failure to agree on a number of issues, including command structures and the extent of integration.
Conte was known to be at odds with board members representing Caja Madrid, the Spanish savings bank and largest shareholder, over how the negotiations were being handled. He cited “personal reasons” for his decision to stand down, first broached with the appointments committee several months ago.
Conte is being replaced by 57-year-old Antonio Vázquez, the former chief executive of tobacco producer Altadis – a move thought to have been initiated by Caja Madrid. Vázquez was also a board director at Iberia between 2005 and 2007.
BA owns about 10 per cent of Iberia and has a seat on its board, so the British carrier would have been aware of Mr Conte’s departure.
Willie Walsh, the chief executive of BA, is quoted in The Times saying: “We are confident that his business and leadership skills will ensure that the relationship with British Airways will continue to develop.
“We look forward to working with him on all matters, including the continuing merger discussions.”
BA and Iberia announced last August that they were in merger talks to create one of Europe’s largest carriers. The talks hit a number of obstacles, including difficulties in pricing the deficit in BA’s pension fund as stock markets around the world collapsed.