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Air Berlin CEO says national disaster avoided thanks to government loan

[FRANKFURT] Insolvent Air Berlin's chief executive said a national disaster had been avoided thanks to a government loan that keeps its planes in the air, after earlier blaming long delays in the opening of a new Berlin airport for some of its problems.

The comments came a day after Air Berlin, Germany's second-largest airline, filed for bankruptcy protection after key shareholder Etihad Airways withdrew funding following years of losses.

The German government granted a bridging loan of 150 million euros (S$240 million) to allow Air Berlin to keep its planes in the air for three months and secure the jobs of its 7,200 workers in Germany while negotiations continue.

"The speed with which all parties in the government worked impressed me. We avoided a national disaster," German daily Bild quoted CEO Thomas Winkelmann as saying.

Still, the Air Berlin brand is likely to disappear, he said, with the carrier's assets set to be divided up and sold to rivals.

Mr Winkelmann also said Air Berlin's woes were partly down to constant delays to the opening of the capital's new airport, which was meant to open in 2011, replacing Air Berlin's home airport Tegel and Schoenefeld.

"We have Berlin in our name, are the prime carrier here and have designed our whole concept based on transfer traffic at this new airport. That is not possible at Tegel, my predecessors had that painful experience," he said in comments to weekly Die Zeit.

Several opening dates for the planned new airport have been postponed as the project faced red tape and technical problems with smoke ventilation systems, cabling and doors.

Mr Winkelmann told Die Zeit that he believed he could save most of the Air Berlin jobs through a restructuring.