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Originally published Monday, November 19, 2012 at 1:38 PM

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Crisis at Cargolux could affect 747 freighter orders

Qatar Airways is divesting its 35 percent stake in Cargolux, leaving the launch customer for Boeing’s 747-8 freighter jet to face an uncertain future.

Seattle Times aerospace reporter

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Boeing delivered a 747-8 jumbo freighter to Cargolux Airlines on Monday, even as a major crisis unfolded back at the cargo carrier’s headquarters in Luxembourg that could derail future deliveries.

Cargolux confirmed Monday that Qatar Airways will divest its 35 percent stake in the company just 14 months after completing the investment.

According to reports in Europe, Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker walked out of a stormy shareholders meeting after a half-hour Friday.

The Luxembourg government, which effectively controls a majority share of Cargolux, announced that evening that Qatar would shed its ownership stake. “Mr. Al Baker made a series of demands that were considered as being difficult to accept,” Cargolux spokeswoman Martine Scheuren told Bloomberg News.

The Boeing 747-8 delivered Monday, with a market value of about $185 million, was Cargolux’s sixth. The carrier has seven more on order.

The undelivered jets are worth $2.5 billion at list prices, though after standard discounts the real value, based on market data from aircraft-valuation firm Avitas, is about $1.3 billion.

The 747-8 has sold slowly. Boeing’s unfilled order book has less than 80 jets, or just over three years of production if all are delivered.

Boeing declined to discuss details of its customer’s business, but said it is working with Cargolux to deliver the remaining jets.

With the global cargo market depressed, Cargolux has been bleeding money. It lost $18 million in 2011, the third annual loss in four years.

The inflow of Qatari money was seen as a way to stabilize the airline.

However, the Qatari plans — which included cutting costs by closing a Luxembourg maintenance base and transferring some operations to Doha — didn’t sit well with the Cargolux unions or the government in Luxembourg, where Cargolux employs almost 1,200.

David Harris, senior editor of Cargo Facts, an industry newsletter produced by Seattle-based Air Cargo Management Group, said the government and Qatar Airways differed sharply over protecting local jobs.

“Luxembourg is a very union-friendly country and highly regulated,” Harris said. “There was a clash.”

Scott Hamilton, industry analyst with Leeham.net, said Qatar Airways was pressing Cargolux to open a hub in Doha and to use Qatar Airways’ 777 freighter jets instead of the larger 747-8s.

Qatar operates four 777 freighters, with four more pending delivery.

Hamilton said a source told him Qatar wanted Cargolux to cancel its remaining 747-8 orders.

Possible investors who might step in for Qatar’s stake are Russian carrier AirBridge Cargo and China’s HNA Group, owner of Hainan Airlines. HNA lost out to Qatar in bidding for the Cargolux stake last year.

Cargolux said Albert Wildgen, who was brought in as company chairman at the time of the Qatari investment, has resigned.

However, interim CEO Richard Forson, a former CFO at Qatar Airways, will stay on.

Citing the “many significant challenges facing Cargolux,” the carrier said in a statement that it now faces a “difficult phase of restructuring.”

Dominic Gates: (206) 464-2963 or dgates@seattletimes.com

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