EasyJet’s founder Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou today justified the decision to pay a £174million dividend to shareholders including around £60million to his family just ten days before it grounded all its 330 planes today.
The Luton-based airline employs 9,000 staff and is the first in the UK to stop all flights and mothball all jets since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in Britain, killing 1,408 so far.
Sir Stelios said today the now-controversial dividends were agreed in February when ‘the world looked like a much happier place’ and the cash was ‘automatically’ paid to shareholders on March 20 and were ‘impossible to stop’.
In an extraordinary statement the billionaire also said calls for him to give the money back were ‘naïve’ and ‘malicious’, adding easyJet ‘is not a charity’.
The grounding of easyJet’s gigantic fleet came just days after calling for a state loan to help them survive.
Justifying the £170million payout Sir Stelios, who with his siblings are the largest single shareholders in the carrier with a 34 per cent stake, insisted that the dividends were ‘legal’ and ‘rightful’.
He said: ‘The reality of the situation is the dividend was legally at the point of no return on the 6th of February, or at the very latest on the 27th of February 2020. The world looked like a much happier place on the 6th of February and the dividend was rightfully paid to all shareholders’.
The billionaire founder of easyJet Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou (pictured in Monaco where he lives) was awarded a £60million dividend from the ailing business ten says ago. It grounded all its planes today and furloughed staff
EasyJet planes are seen grounded at Edinburgh Airport this morning as all its 1,000-plus routes closed for at least two months
In a lengthy statement he said the payments could not have been stopped.
He said: ‘The dividends by the 20th of March we already paid automatically via a complex web of bank accounts where the shares are held and it is impossible to stop it for some shareholders but not for others’.
Sir Stelios is threatening to seek the removal of board members unless the airline withdraws from a contract with Airbus to provide 107 aircraft which he said will cost £4.5 billion.
In his statement today he said journalists who asked whether he would hand his dividend back were ‘naïve/malicious’, adding: ‘I am perplexed as to how that would work?’, adding: ‘To be used how? To pay that money straight over to Airbus? And what is the consideration for such a gift? Or is it meant as a selfless charitable donation? Charity towards which deserving cause exactly? easyJet is not a registered charity to receive donations and neither is Airbus. That’s not how publically listed companies work’.
EasyJet today grounded its entire fleet of 330-plus planes as coronavirus continued to wound Britain’s airlines.
The airline serves 159 airports and 1,051 routes, has 9,000 UK-based staff including 4,000 cabin crew.
The company has worked with union Unite to agree two-month furlough arrangements for cabin crew which means that crew will be paid 80 per cent of their average pay up to £2,500-a-month through the Government job retention scheme.
Virgin Atlantic will ask the British government for a package of commercial loans and guarantees worth hundreds of millions of pounds, the Financial Times reported.
Other carriers including airlines such as Loganair and Eastern Airways, and Norwegian Air Shuttle are also considering to ask for state aid, the newspaper added.
But British ministers want bigger airlines with wealthy shareholders will weather the storm without the need for billions in taxpayer cash.
The Luton-based carrier said the measure ‘removes significant cost’ as the aviation industry struggles to cope with a collapse in demand caused by the outbreak of the virus.
It insisted it ‘maintains a strong balance sheet’ and revealed it is in ‘ongoing discussions with liquidity providers’.
EasyJet said in a statement: ‘As a result of the unprecedented travel restrictions imposed by governments in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the implementation of national lockdowns across many European countries, easyJet has, today, fully grounded its entire fleet of aircraft.
‘Over recent days easyJet has been helping to repatriate customers, having operated more than 650 rescue flights to date, returning home more than 45,000 customers. The last of these rescue flights were operated on Sunday March 29.
We will continue to work with government bodies to operate additional rescue flights as requested.
How coronavirus has affected airlines in the UK over the past month
Flybe: Europe’s largest regional airline collapsed on March 5 after months on the brink, triggering 2,400 job losses and left around 15,000 passengers stranded across the UK and Europe. Flybe’s owners, a consortium including Virgin Atlantic, the Stobart Group and hedge fund firm Cyrus Capital, blamed coronavirus for hastening the ailing airline’s collapse. Flybe operated up to 50 UK routes, accounting for 40 per cent of all domestic flights, and was used by 9.5million passengers a year.
British Airways: The International Airlines Group, which also includes Iberia and Aer Lingus, said on March 16 that there would be a 75 per cent reduction in passenger capacity for two months, with boss Willie Walsh admitting there was ‘no guarantee that many European airlines would survive’.
easyJet: The airline with 9,000 UK-based staff including 4,000 cabin crew grounds its entire fleet of 344 planes on March 30. The Luton-based carrier said parking all of its planes ‘removes significant cost’ as the aviation industry struggles to cope with a collapse in demand.
Loganair: The Scottish regional airline said on March 30 that it expects to ask the Government for a bailout to cope with the impact of the pandemic. Loganair will go to the government despite being told by Finance Minister Rishi Sunak last week that airlines should exhaust all other options for funding, before asking for help.
Jet2: The budget holiday airline has suspended all of its flights departing from Britain until April 30. A number of Jet2 flights turned around mid-air earlier this month while travelling to Spain when a lockdown was announced in the country.
Virgin Atlantic: The airline said on March 16 that it would have reduced its lights by 80 per cent by March 26, and this will go up to 85 per cent by April. It has also urged the Government to offer carriers emergency credit facilities worth up to £7.5billion.
Ryanair: More than 90 per cent of the Irish-based airline’s planes are now grounded, with the rest of the aircraft providing repatriation and rescue flights.
‘At this stage there can be no certainty of the date for restarting commercial flights. We will continuously evaluate the situation based on regulations and demand, and will update the market when we have a view.’
Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the founder of easyJet, is threatening to seek the removal of board members unless the airline withdraws from a contract with Airbus to provide 107 aircraft which he said will cost £4.5 billion.
The billionaire and his family are the largest single shareholders in the carrier with a 34% stake.
He described the Airbus deal as ‘simply shareholder value destroying’.
He added that unless his concerns are addressed by noon on Wednesday, he will call for extraordinary general meetings every seven weeks and attempt to remove a non-executive director on each occasion.
In response to the letter, easyJet said it is ‘working with suppliers to defer and reduce payments where possible including on aircraft expenditure’.
Airports and airlines struggling for survival as a result of coronavirus have accused ministers of U-turning on a promise of special support.
This month Chancellor Rishi Sunak said he was preparing a support package to help the aviation industry deal with the biggest challenge in its history.
He was rumoured to be finalising a multi-billion rescue deal for the industry, which could have seen the Government purchase stakes in the hardest-hit airlines.
However, the Chancellor has now told industry leaders that the Treasury will only provide support ‘as a last resort’ – and only if individual companies have ‘exhausted other options’.
The Airport Operators Association (AOA), which represents UK airports, last night accused the Government of abandoning the sector amid fears some airlines could collapse within weeks.
Chief executive Karen Dee said: ‘After having publicly announced a support package for airports and airlines, we’re surprised by where we find ourselves today. Our industry will now have to fight on its own to protect its workforce and its future.
‘With passenger numbers approaching close to zero, UK airports have seen a major drop in revenue. They are taking unprecedented steps to safeguard airport staff and operations through this crisis, which could include in some cases considering shutting down for a period of time. This could have major impacts for UK communities and businesses.’
The AOA has demanded a support package that included measures such as relaxing regulations relating to mandatory training requirements, extending business rate relief to airports and deferring all aviation taxes for the duration of global flight restrictions.
NHS asks thousands of first aid-trained easyJet and Virgin airline staff to help battle coronavirus
Air cabin crew will join doctors and nurses in staffing the new Nightingale hospitals built to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, the NHS has said.
Staff at Virgin Atlantic and EasyJet have been invited to volunteer at the new 4,000-bed clinic being built at the Excel centre in east London, and those planned in Birmingham and Manchester.
Their salaries will continue to be paid by the airlines as an astonishing 750,000 other Britons joined the NHS volunteer army in just five days.
Many first-aid trained cabin crew across the world have been grounded as countries have closed borders and cancelled flights amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
EasyJet has already written to its 9,000 UK-based staff including 4,000 cabin crew trained in CPR to invite them to give their time to the NHS.
Virgin Atlantic will begin writing to 4,000 of its employees on Monday and will prioritise getting in touch with those who already have the required skills.
Those who join up will be given expert training and will then perform support roles such as changing beds under the guidance of trained nurses.
Virgin Atlantic has also urged the Government to offer a £7.5 billion bailout, while the Balpa pilots’ union warned last week that aviation companies could begin ‘winding down’ in the coming days without more support.
Plummeting passenger numbers have forced airlines such as EasyJet and Ryanair to ground their entire fleet, while bigger carriers such as BA and Virgin Atlantic have cut schedules by up to 90 per cent.
Airports have warned they could close within weeks due to flatlining footfall. Many of the country’s smaller regional airports were already struggling before the pandemic following the collapse of Flybe earlier this month.
In his letter to the industry, the Chancellor says: ‘Given the significant importance of the aviation sector to our economy and economic recovery, the Government is prepared to enter negotiations with individual companies seeking bespoke support as a last resort, having exhausted other options.
‘However further taxpayer support would only be possible if all commercial avenues have been fully explored, including raising further capital from existing investors and discussing arrangements with financial stakeholders.’
The Mail understands the decision not to provide a single package of support was taken after it became clear that each aviation company had very different needs.
Sir Richard Branson has pledged £215million to support Virgin Atlantic, which he part-owns, but the airline is still calling for a taxpayer bailout.
Why are flights still landing in Britain from coronavirus hotspots including Italy, the US and Spain?
Flights are still landing in Britain from coronavirus hotspots including Italy, the US and Spain.
Passengers landed at London Heathrow this morning on planes from the likes of Rome on Alitalia, New York on United Airlines and Madrid on Iberia.
Flights from America also brought passengers into London today from other US cities including Atlanta and Boston on British Airways, and Dallas on American Airlines.
While passengers arriving on flights from affected countries are asked to self-isolate for 14 days, there are no means of enforcing this and no health checks are being carried out at UK airports.
There is a split in the Cabinet other whether UK borders should be closed to stop people arriving from virus hotspots.
Home Secretary Priti Patel wants to stop passengers being able to fly in to the UK from countries with high levels of infections such as Iran, the US and China.
Mrs Patel believes flights from virus hotspots should not be allowed when the country is on lockdown to prevent its spread.
The lack of a travel ban in the UK is in stark contrast to policies in the EU and the US which have closed their borders to travellers from many other countries.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab want to keep the borders open, in part to allow stranded Britons to return home.