High-profile airline industry figure David Neeleman has come out swinging against allegations his time at TAP Air Portugal (TP, Lisbon) worsened the airline's financial fortunes. Neeleman was responding to questions raised in Portugal's parliament last week by infrastructure minister Pedro Santos Nunes saying that the current government should stop using him and the airline as for political point-scoring.

Neeleman was one of the parties behind the Atlântico Gateway consortium that took a 45% stake in TAP Air Portugal in 2015 (the government retained a 50% stake). Neeleman was later ousted in 2020 when the government upped its stake to 72.5% and said it was in the public interest to keep the airline in public hands. Neelemen went on to set up Breeze Airways (MX, Salt Lake City) and the Portuguese government is once again debating partially privatising the country's flag carrier.

Concurrently, a Portuguese Public Ministry investigation is underway into reports that Neeleman cleared the purchase of 50 Airbus narrowbodies at full list prices after a discount had previously been negotiated. “The acquisition process, which had the seal of approval of all involved, was scrutinised politically and technically, without any reservations or doubts being raised," Neeleman told Portugal's Lusa news agency this week. "Please stop using me and TAP as a political arm and focus your efforts on recovering the huge investment that in the meantime taxpayers were forced to make in the company.”

The political party that green-lighted the 2015 partial privatisation, the Social Democratic Party (PSD), is now in opposition, and the current ruling Socialist Party was sitting on the sidelines back in 2015 - lending a political tinge to the present debate.

"The entire privatisation process and later shareholder reconfiguration were filly scrutinised by two Portuguese governments, Parpública (the agency that manages state-run enterprises and entities), the Tribunal de Contas (the public finances audit watchdog), the Portuguese Competition Authority, the civil aviation authority (ANAC), among other entities," said Neeleman.

He notes that while he was at the airline, TAP Air Portugal's liquidity grew by EUR500 million (USD498 million), passenger numbers increased by 54%, employee numbers grew by 18%, and the number of flights increased by 21%. Neeleman says when he became a shareholder, the airline's debt was 11x EBITDA. That reduced to 5xEBITDA over the five years that he maintained his holding.

“TAP did not need a single euro from the Portuguese state and its debt no longer needed to be guaranteed by the state," he said. "In my various projects in the airline industry, I have always met my obligations, acting in an honest and transparent way. It is a great pity that the current government had chosen to impose my exit under the threat of TAP’s nationalisation. It is not true that it was the only solution and that it was down to the private shareholders to capitalise the company, as it could have easily understood from looking at its European counterpart airlines”.

Portugal's parliament continues its debt on whether to partially privatise TAP Air Portugal once again.