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Lufthansa to buy a piece of JetBlue

Discount airline JetBlue, a faded star on Wall Street, has agreed to sell a nearly one-fifth stake in itself to German carrier Lufthansa.

The New York-based carrier, which offers flights from Tucson, will be getting $300 million in cash that will help offset some recent losses and put it in a better position to deal with expensive jet fuel. Passengers are unlikely to notice any changes, at least not soon.

“We view this as strictly a financial transaction,” JetBlue CEO Dave Barger said in a conference call about the investment.

The investment is the first by a European carrier in an established U.S. discounter, though Briton Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, parent of Virgin Atlantic, owns 23 percent of start-up discounter Virgin America. Dutch carrier KLM at one time owned part of Northwest Airlines.

For its money, Lufthansa will be getting 19 percent of JetBlue and the right to name one new member to the company’s board. It is paying $7.27 for each of the 42 million JetBlue shares to be issued. That’s a 16 percent premium over JetBlue’s closing price on Wednesday. In Thursday trading, shares shot up 14 percent to $7.15. JetBlue’s stock traded above $30 in late 2003.

The deal allows Lufthansa to leverage the euro’s strength against the dollar to buy cheaply into the U.S. airline business.

JetBlue began flying in early 2000 with the initial backing of financier George Soros and several private-equity funds. In its early years, its share price soared as investors responded heartily to the low-cost carrier’s near-instant profitability, its live in-flight TV and rapid growth. But the carrier’s sagging financial performance since 2003, and an embarrassing string of operational breakdowns that included a disruption of its operations at New York John F. Kennedy airport in February, forced it to slow its growth and replace much of its senior management.

“I wouldn’t say JetBlue absolutely needs that extra cash,” said Calyon Securities analyst Ray Neidl. “But with the potential for $100-a-barrel oil out there, it’s nice to have.” Neidl said he expects the JetBlue-Lufthansa relationship eventually to grow into a marketing partnership that would feed JetBlue’s domestic passengers to Lufthansa’s flights to Europe.

Current U.S. law limits Lufthansa’s influence by capping ownership of a U.S. carrier by foreigners at less than half and by imposing separate controls on its ability to dictate management decisions.

JetBlue earned a $23 million profit in the July-September period. But it lost $1 million in the first six months of 2007. That loss followed a loss of $1 million in 2006.

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