Sixty-three million dollars to refloat a small airline with four airplanes. The public rescue of Plus Ultra Líneas Aéreas sparked controversy in Spain, where the right-wing accused the leftist government of favoring this company linked to Venezuela.
It is “a scandal that is adding new details day by day and the government continues without explanation (…) What is behind all this?”, asked Antonio González Terol, deputy of the Popular Party (PP, right), who demanded a parliamentary commission on this issue, according to AFP.
For its part, the liberal Ciudadanos party requested in writing an investigation by the European Commission, while the extreme right-wing Vox filed a complaint with the Supreme Court.
In early March, Pedro Sanchez’s government agreed to an emergency loan of 53 million euros (US$63 million) to Plus Ultra, described in a statement as “a niche airline”.
The company links Spain only with Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, with four Airbus A340s.
The money released by the Spanish government comes from a special fund of 10 billion euros (11.89 billion dollars) to rescue “strategic” companies in difficulties due to the covid-19 pandemic.
In November, the government agreed to €475 million ($565 million) for Air Europa, Spain’s second-largest airline, choked by falling air traffic.
The problem is that Plus Ultra is a featherweight of Spanish aviation, with 156,000 passengers carried on some 800 commercial flights in 2019. By contrast, Air Europa carried 19 million people on 165,000 flights that year, according to figures from airport manager Aena.
“What is strategic about an airline with four destinations, with a market share of less than 0.1%, with losses since it was created long before covid and that is not even among the top 30 airlines in Spain?” questioned the leader of Ciudadanos, Inés Arrimadas.
For the press and the opposition, the explanation is to be sought in the relationship between Caracas and Podemos, junior government partner of the Socialists in Spain. A relationship forged by the advisory work that some leaders of the Spanish radical left carried out in the past in favor of Chavism.
Plus Ultra is based in Madrid, but the company counts among its main shareholders Venezuelan businessmen, who are presented by the right wing as being close to the Chavista regime.
“What if it has a relationship with Delcygate”, suggested Deputy González Terol, in allusion to the scandal generated by the meeting in January 2020 at the Madrid airport of the Spanish Minister of Transport, José Luis Ábalos, with the number two of the Venezuelan government, Delcy Rodríguez, despite the fact that the latter is banned from entering the European Union.
The matter also irritated Plus Ultra’s competitors.
“We demand equal treatment (…) It is not acceptable that some airlines are discriminated against others”, declared the president of the Airline Association, Javier Gándara, to the newspaper El Mundo.
To justify the aid to Plus Ultra, the government stated in a communiqué that the company offers a “complementary” service to that of “larger companies”, since it transports mainly Latin Americans “who travel mainly to visit relatives”.
It also seeks to protect the attractiveness of Madrid-Barajas airport as a hub, guaranteeing multiple connections, according to the government.
“The fact that a company is strategic is not only marked by its market share, but also by belonging to a sector that is strategic in the Spanish economy,” such as tourism, government spokeswoman María Jesús Montero stressed Wednesday on public radio RNE.
In her opinion, Barajas is “in worse conditions than other hubs in other member states” of the European Union.
And she said she was “absolutely convinced that the whole dossier has been done correctly, after three independent reports”.
European Commission to investigate
The European Commission will launch a formal investigation against the government of Pedro Sánchez for Spain’s role in the Plus Ultra airline case, El Mundo newspaper reported Wednesday.
Brussels is to analyze the Plus Ultra case and decide whether to proceed with an in-depth examination into the legality of the airline’s bailout.