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International Lease Finance returns to buying passenger jets

The company better known as ILFC hasn't made a purchase in three years. It plans to order 100 Airbus A320 jets and 33 Boeing 737s. The planes have a book value of more than $11 billion.

March 09, 2011|By W.J. Hennigan, Los Angeles Times
  • International Lease Finance Corp. was restricted in its ability to buy planes after the financial crisis nearly brought down its parent company, AIG. ILFC has reestablished a solid foundation for the future, said Henri Courpron, the companys chief executive, above.
International Lease Finance Corp. was restricted in its ability to buy… (Francine Orr, Los Angeles…)

For the first time in more than three years, Century City aircraft leasing giant International Lease Finance Corp. is placing an order for passenger jets.

The company, better known as ILFC, said it plans to purchase 100 Airbus A320 jets and 33 of Boeing Co.'s 737s. The planes have a book value of more than $11 billion.

ILFC currently owns a fleet of about 930 aircraft but hasn't placed an order for new aircraft since October 2007. The company was restricted in its ability to pick up new planes after the 2008 global financial crisis nearly brought down its parent company, American International Group Inc.

But last year, ILFC raised $14 billion from investors and aircraft sales. It also landed a $2-billion credit line from 11 banks.

"ILFC has reestablished a solid foundation for the future," said Henri Courpron, the company's chief executive. "Now it's about finding homes for our aircraft."

The order is the culmination of more than a yearlong rebuilding period for ILFC. For decades, the company had been an industry leader in aircraft leasing — the business of buying planes and renting them to airlines.

But it fell on hard times when AIG received $182.5 billion in federal bailout money, which pinned the company under government control and placed restrictions on the amount of money executives could make. That confinement caused a mass exodus of ILFC's management team.

The biggest blow came in February 2010 when company co-founder and then-CEO Steven Udvar-Hazy abruptly left to start a rival business, Air Lease Corp., also based in Century City.

After Udvar-Hazy left, ILFC had two other CEOs who ran the company from posh offices on the top floors of Century City's MGM Tower. It wasn't until last May that Courpron, a native of France and a former Airbus executive, stepped into the role.

"We were in no position to order planes when I took over," he said. "For the first time, ILFC was an outsider. But we demonstrated we can fight."

After raising money through bond offerings and aircraft sales, Courpron said the company began serious discussions to purchase new planes late last year. In December, France-based Airbus unveiled the A320neo, a new version of its popular single-aisle jet that offers fuel savings of 15% compared with the current A320.

Airbus has said delivery of the new A320s is expected to start in 2016. Delivery of Chicago-based Boeing's 737s will begin in 2012. Both models, which are predominantly flown on shorter domestic routes, are extremely popular among carriers.

"These aircraft are the main players for airlines around the world," said George Hamlin, president of Hamlin Transportation Consulting in Fairfax, Va. "It's a safe order and the best the manufacturers have to offer."

As part of the agreement with Airbus, ILFC scrapped a prior commitment to purchase 10 of the company's super-jumbo A380 jets. Courpron said that the company has more than 100 wide-body aircraft on order in the years to come and less than a dozen narrow-body jets. The decision, he said, just made more business sense.

"The order for single-aisles is the wisest decision at this moment," he said. "It was just a matter of timing."

william.hennigan@latimes.com

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