November has been an important month in the history of Spain’s transport. Ninety-three years apart, November was the month when the deed of incorporation was signed for founding a shipping company and when signatures were put to a preliminary merger agreement involving the national airline. In November 1916, Compañía Trasmediterránea was founded. In November 2009, the agreement was made for the merger of Iberia with British Airways.
It has been the lament of airline industry commentators that Spain has lost its independence, and yet if you want to go back far enough in time, what was to become the national carrier Iberia was part German. The original capital investment for the incorporation of Iberia in 1927 came from a Basque financier, Horacio Echevarrieta, and Deutsche Luft Hansa, the forerunner of Lufthansa.
This German connection was to prove useful during the Civil War. It was only after Iberia was nationalised in 1944 and then in the 1950s as the Franco regime’s relations with the USA improved that Iberia became an identifiably and fully Spanish international operation.
The merger with BA was finally completed in January 2011. The International Airlines Group (IAG) was created. It wasn’t a true merger of equals - these things very rarely are - insofar as BA had 55% of the shareholding and the main headquarters were in London. Positioned as an Anglo-Spanish airline group, the perception in Spain was nevertheless one of having sold out.
When Vueling was subsequently acquired, this perception hardened. The intended purchase of Air Europa, the last major and independent Spanish airline left standing, has added to the lament, even if the IAG CEO is now a Spaniard, Luis Gallego, in succession to Willie Walsh.
Independence and national pride aside, there is the issue of strategic interest. Once upon a time, Iberia had been highly strategic, especially during the Franco era; the airline was, for some years, able to count on a monopoly of national air transport. It wasn’t until 2001 that Iberia was privatised, at which point it became a potential target.
There was considerable wailing when the merger was first announced. This didn’t cease when the merger was completed, and it has never entirely gone away, the national pride dented ever more by the relentless advance of Ryanair. The fact is, though, that Iberia had been operating in a deregulated and open market well before the merger took place. What has happened, certainly since privatisation, is no more than what has occurred with other major airlines.
But try saying this to the lamenters of national and independent pride lost.
Trasmediterránea is a different case because its scope as a shipping company is far more limited. Yet in a sense it was a national company for many years - between 1978 and 2002 it was either partially or totally state-owned - and there is a similar lament, at a much reduced level, for it now having passed into foreign hands. The loss, it might be said, will be felt more acutely in Majorca than much of Spain because Trasmediterránea has had such close ties with the island since its founding.
The original deed of incorporation was in Barcelona, and the signatories were four shipowners - Jose Juan Dómine, Vicente Ferrer Peset, Joaquín María Tintoré and Enrique García Corrons. The Majorcan connection was soon to become very much stronger. In 1918, control of Trasmediterránea was taken via another shipping operator - Isleña Marítima.
The owner of that company was Joan March Ordinas, later to be known, among other things, as the last pirate of the Mediterranean. Having control of shipping companies was on the face of it a legitimate means of acquiring further illicit wealth - from smuggling, something at which March was highly adept. It is reckoned that although his name wasn’t on the deed of incorporation, it was really March who created Trasmediterránea in the first place.
The Trasmediterránea being acquired by Italy’s Grimaldi is clearly a very different company to what it was in those early days, but while its sale is lamented as another blow to Spain’s transport industry and national pride, what can’t be lost is its rich history. March was a rogue, and a very well-connected rogue.
King Alfonso XIII was at one time a shareholder in Trasmediterránea; the king was apparently given 3,000 shares by March. In recognition of such generosity, Trasmediterránea was awarded the contract for moving troops, supplies and equipment to north Africa during the Rif War of the first half of the 1920s.
There were to be what were described as “peculiar” missions for the Franco regime - basically supplying Nazi submarines on the high seas - and there were also the missions to take Jews to safety. March and Trasmediterránea were paid handsomely to transport Jews to New York. This was despite Trasmediterránea not having permission to undertake transatlantic voyages. When the FBI took an interest, it was Winston Churchill who intervened. March was his favourite Mallorcan spy, the consummate player of both sides.