* Says 49 pct stake will reinforce Meridian’s network
* Third airline investment by major Gulf carrier
* Acquisition finalised despite Gulf political crisis (Adds detail, background, quotes)
By Alexander Cornwell
DOHA, Sept 28 (Reuters) - Qatar Airways said on Thursday it had acquired a 49 percent stake in AQA Holding, the new parent company of Italy’s Meridiana, adding to its growing portfolio of investments in foreign airlines.
Previous sole owner Alisarda retains 51 percent, the major Middle East airline said in a statement.
Loss-making, Sardinia-based Meridiana is Italy’s second largest carrier behind Alitalia, which is partly owned by Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways. Alitalia filed for administration earlier this year.
The value of the Meridiana acquisition was not given, and the deal was finalised after protracted negotiations that formally started more than a year ago.
“We are delighted to formalise this important partnership, which will help increase Meridiana’s competitiveness in the European market,” Qatar Airways Chief Executive Akbar al-Baker said.
Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said the deal represented a turnaround for Meridiana and would help Italy’s tourism industry, especially in the poorer south of the country.
Transport Minister Graziano Delrio said it would ensure job security for Meridiana workers, and created the potential for future job growth.
Alisarda Chairman Marco Rigotti has been appointed chairman of AQA Holding, and Francesco Violante has been appointed as chairman of Meridiana.
A new strategy and chief executive for Meridiana would be announced in “due course,” but al-Baker said Qatar Airways would work with Meridiana to improve its connectivity to Italy, other European destinations, and to the United States.
Al-Baker has said Meridiana would use Boeing 737 MAXs ordered by Qatar Airways, with 20 to be delivered to the Italian airline from the second quarter of 2018.
Meridiana, which offers flights to and from Sardinia and other destinations in Italy, was until now fully owned by the Aga Khan, a businessman and spiritual leader of the Ismaili Muslims.
Qatar Airways bought the Meridiana stake nearly four months into a Gulf political crisis that has seen some Arab states cut ties with Qatar, and the airline banned from flying to some Middle East cities.
Qatar Airways also owns minority stakes in British Airways parent International Airlines Group (IAG) and South America’s LATAM Airlines.
Earlier this year, Qatar Airways tried to add American Airlines to its portfolio of minority stakes but later backed away after being rebuked by American’s management. It has also expressed interest in Royal Air Maroc.
Qatar Airways has said it buys stakes in airlines that it believes are good investments, and lets them operate as businesses distinct from the Gulf carrier. (Additional reporting by Agnieszka Flak in Milan and Gavin Jones in Italy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)