Latin America's largest airline LATAM files for US bankruptcy protection

Latin America’s largest airline LATAM Airlines Group SA said on Tuesday the company and its affiliates in Chile, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and the US have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in the United States.

LATAM is the latest corporate victim of the coronavirus pandemic that has brought a virtual halt to air travel, joining Colombia’s Avianca Holdings and Australia’s Virgin Australia Holdings Ltd in bankruptcy protection as it seeks to restructure its debt.

“We have implemented a series of difficult measures to mitigate the impact of this unprecedented industry disruption, but ultimately this path represents the best option,” LATAM Chief Executive Officer Roberto Alvo said in a statement.

The airline will continue to fly while it is in bankruptcy protection and its affiliates in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay were not included in the Chapter 11 filing.

US carrier Delta Air Lines Inc is the biggest shareholder in LATAM, having last year paid $1.9 billion for a 20% stake during better times for the industry.

LATAM said it had secured funding from other major shareholders, including the Cueto and Amaro families and Qatar Airways, to provide up to $900 million in debtor-in-possession financing.

“To the extent permitted by law, the group would welcome other shareholders interested in participating in this process to provide additional financing,” the airline said, adding it had about $1.3 billion in cash on hand.

LATAM listed assets and liabilities in the range of $10 billion and $50 billion, according to a filing with the US Bankruptcy Court in Southern District of New York.

The airline was downgraded by S&P and Fitch on Friday after the company confirmed it did not pay interest and principal on three tranches of 2015 $1 billion enhanced equipment trust certificates.

LATAM, formed when Chile’s LAN merged with Brazil’s TAM in 2012, said its Brazilian affiliates are in discussions with the Brazilian government about the next steps and financial support for operations in the country.

Chapter 11 proceedings allow a company that is no longer able to repay its debt to restructure without pressure from creditors.

Last month, the Chilean-Brazilian airline said it was scaling back its operations by 95% in response to the global health crisis. It also announced hundreds of job cuts earlier in May. The airline said there would be no immediate impact on passenger or cargo flights.

"The US Chapter 11 financial reorganization process provides a clear and guided opportunity to work with our creditors and other stakeholders to reduce our debt, address commercial challenges that we, like others in our industry, are facing," its statement said.

It came just two weeks after Latin America's second largest airline, Colombia's Avianca, also filed for bankruptcy in the US to reorganize its debt "due to the unpredictable impact" of the pandemic.

The International Air Transport Association has forecast a $15 billion loss in revenue for Latin American airlines this year.

Before the pandemic, LATAM - a merger of Chile's LAN and Brazil's TAM - flew to 145 destinations in 26 countries, operating around 1,400 flights a day.

On Friday the World Health Organization declared Latin America "a new epicenter" of the coronavirus pandemic, as cases surge across the continent -- especially in Brazil, which now has the second highest number of confirmed COVID-19 cases after the US.

Latin America and the Caribbean have reported more than 41,000 virus deaths and over 766,000 total cases, according to an AFP tally.

More on this subject: Coronavirus

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