Swiss regional carrier Etihad Regional has been sold to Luxembourg-based private equity fund 4K Invest, owners of Slovenia’s Adria Airways.

Etihad Airways has held a 33.3% stake in Darwin Airline since 2014, with the Swiss company being rebranded as Etihad Regional.

The move marks another stage in Etihad’s change of strategy following the departure of former president and CEO James Hogan. Hogan built up a series of equity partnerships in airlines as a means of creating an alliance-like structure, with partner carriers’ traffic into Etihad’s Abu Dhabi hub.

The first sign of a move away from this came with Etihad’s agreement with other shareholders of Alitalia to place the Italian airline into extraordinary administration, the Italian equivalent of Chapter 11 proceedings, in May after continued heavy losses at the Rome-based carrier.

“The decision to sell this minority stake in Darwin is a result of the ongoing strategic review of our investments and a decision to concentrate on our other partnerships. We wish everyone at Darwin well in the future,” Etihad Aviation Group chief strategy and planning officer Kevin Knight said.

In a statement July 20, Darwin said its shareholders, including Etihad, had agreed to sell their holdings to 4K Invest. The financial terms of the purchase have not been revealed. Under the agreement, Darwin will be rebranded as Adria Airways Switzerland for marketing purposes, although the Darwin name will remain legally alive.

Darwin has its headquarters in Lugano, in the Ticino region of southeast Switzerland, with its main secondary base in Geneva. Adria Airways will take over some of Darwin’s administrative and operational tasks.

As part of the deal, Darwin CEO Maurizio Merlo is leaving the company. He will be replaced by Adria CFO Heinrich Ollendiek.

“Darwin is an excellent airline with experienced management and staff. Extending our network and, consequently, optimizing cost structures will create a win-win situation for both carriers,” Adria Airways CEO Arno Schuster said. Adria is a Star Alliance airline.

“Adria Airways, with its extensive expertise, its strong route network, especially in the southeast European market, will be very beneficial not only to the future of Darwin, but also to the Ticino region we serve, which needs good connections with the rest of Switzerland and throughout Europe,” Darwin’s chairman Emilio Martinenghi said.

He noted that “Darwin Airline SA is well capitalized and solvent and able to honor all its obligations towards its creditors.” It is understood that Darwin, as Etihad Regional, was profitable last year and should be so again in the current year.

Darwin CEO Merlo addressed staff July 20 and noted that he had decided to move on after 14 years with the company, the last five as CEO.

“He told staff ‘It’s a new chapter in the history of the company and new people should write that chapter,’” Darwin spokesman Sacha Wigdorovits told ATW.

Wigdorivits said the sale had happened “immensely quickly,” with Etihad having only told Darwin in early May that it wanted to pull out of its Swiss venture.

He said Darwin had decided to find a new partner rather than reverting to its old name in order to bring economies of scale. “You know how difficult it is to have a standalone solution, especially when you’re really a rather small carrier. That’s why looking for cooperation definitely made sense—for both airlines.”

Darwin has a fleet of six Saab 2000 and four ATR 72-500 regional turboprops. Adria operates three Airbus A319 narrowbodies, plus six Bombardier CRJ900LR and three CRJ700ER regional jets.

Alan Dron alandron@adepteditorial.com