TAP Air Portugal (TP, Lisbon) has filed an application in the Commercial Courts of Lisbon for the liquidation of its groundhandling company, Serviços Portugueses de Handling, S.A. (SPdH), also known by its trademark Groundforce Portugal.

The airline is a creditor of Groundforce, which to date has provided ground-handling services to TAP at Lisbon, Porto, Faro, Funchal, and Porto Santo.

At the end of April, Groundforce’s board of directors approved the cancellation of its groundhandling contract with TAP, alleging that the contract, as it was structured, had been unviable.

Groundforce is owned 50.1% by private entity firm Pasogal and 49.9% by the TAP Group, which, in 2020, became 72.5% owned by the Portuguese state. The TAP Group share is divided between subsidiaries Transportes Aéreos Portugueses SGPS SA (43.9%) and Portugália Airlines (NI, Lisbon) (6%).

TAP, in a statement, said the application has been made in the light of Groundforce's worsening financial situation; there being no apparent credible solutions for it to obtain financing following the refusal by the state-owned Caixa Geral de Depósitos and Banco Português de Fomento to provide financing and guarantees; and the fact that its majority shareholder had failed to restore the confidence of creditors.

TAP said it believed the insolvency filing was the solution that best protected the majority of the company's stakeholders, with the objective that, if Groundforce was declared insolvent, its creditors (including its employees) would be given a voice and primacy regarding the following critical options:

  • to evaluate the possibility of the continuity of Grounforce and to decide on the approval of a recovery plan; or
  • if this option was not viable, that the liquidation of Groundforce was carried out in an orderly manner and to the optimum satisfaction of each of its creditors.

The filing of the insolvency application would be followed by a judicial review of TAP's application and of any opposition that may be filed by Groundforce, which may culminate in a ruling of declaration of insolvency or a ruling rejecting TAP's filing.

The company pointed out that the mere filing for a declaration of insolvency did not have the legal effect of paralysing Groundforce's operations and the services it provides. “In any case, the various stakeholders are actively working on solutions to remedy any operational difficulties that may arise in the context of the insolvency proceedings and the decisions that may be handed down therein,” TAP said.

Meanwhile, news agency Lusa reports that TAP has given its assurances that the insolvency application would not affect Pasogal's announced intention to sell its majority stake in the ground-handler.

Pasogal chairman Alfredo Casimiro, at the weekend, announced he had hired Nomura Bank to advise on the sale of Pasogal's stake and had asked for "special attention" to a possible deal with Belgium ground-handling company, Aviapartner.

“I gave instructions for special attention to be given to Aviapartner, a Belgian company that recently benefited from significant economic and financial support from the Belgian state, as part of the extraordinary aid for the aviation sector, with a view to mitigating the consequences of the pandemic crisis,” Casimiro said in a statement. “However, I must express my perplexity and consternation at the difference in treatment that the same problem has received from the governments of the two countries: while Belgium has supported its companies, in Portugal, Groundforce has seen its requests for aid to various entities rejected, with the state itself leading this veto, even though it recognises that this is the only company of the TAP Group that has made a profit in recent years,” he added.

In an agreement signed on March 19, 2021, TAP bought Groundforce equipment for about EUR7 million euros (USD8.4 million), a short-term solution that allowed the company to pay salary arrears for February and March to its 2,400 workers.