(Bloomberg) -- Activist investor Carl Icahn took a 9.91% stake in JetBlue Airways Corp. with plans to seek at least one spot on the board, aiming to boost shareholder value in the wake of the near-collapse of the carrier’s deal to buy Spirit Airlines Inc.
Affiliates of the billionaire late Monday disclosed a position in JetBlue valued at $204 million, based on the day’s closing prices, making Icahn the third-largest shareholder in the carrier. According to a filing, the investor has already held talks with company leaders “regarding the possibility of board representation.”
JetBlue shares jumped 15% after the market opened in New York, the biggest intraday advance in two months.
The move amps up pressure on new JetBlue Chief Executive Officer Joanna Geraghty, who took over the top job on Monday following a 30% drop in the shares over the past 12 months. The carrier already is facing challenges to its growth plans after federal courts struck down a regional alliance with American Airlines Group Inc. and blocked JetBlue’s planned $3.8 billion takeover of Spirit.
“While high-profile investments in the sector come and go, such as Warren Buffett’s investments in some of the US majors until Covid-19’s onset, the key items to watch in this case are what Mr. Icahn can or cannot do on the board level” to put JetBlue on a better strategic path, Stephen Trent, a Citi analyst, said in a note.
The type of regulatory filing by Icahn indicates “some intent to influence” the company’s path, he said, and his share purchase could “sustain short-term enthusiasm” in the shares. It wasn’t immediately clear what changes Icahn wants or how many board seats he intends to pursue.
JetBlue said last month that it was evaluating steps to return to profitability as a stand-alone carrier, including deeper cost cuts, delaying aircraft deliveries and reworking its flight network. The airline has struggled to control costs and grow substantially on its own, and a 2016 effort to acquire Virgin America also failed when JetBlue was outbid by Alaska Air Group Inc.
“We are always open to constructive dialogue with our investors as we continue to execute our plan to enhance value for all of our shareholders and stakeholders,” JetBlue said in a statement after Icahn’s stake was disclosed. The investor didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The stake harks back to one of Icahn’s most famous plays as a corporate raider from the 1980s. The hedge fund manager took over Trans World Airlines, loading it with debt and sending it toward bankruptcy in the early 1990s after several turbulent years.
The JetBlue investment puts the 87-year-old Icahn behind BlackRock and Vanguard Group among the carrier’s top shareholders, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The news came the same day that Geraghty took office following the departure of former CEO Robin Hayes for health reasons.
JetBlue hasn’t fully abandoned its pursuit of Spirit, a deal that was intended to give the company a quick infusion of new planes and pilots when both are in short supply. A June hearing has been set for the carriers’ appeal of the ruling, which found that their merger would violate antitrust laws.
While JetBlue has warned that the deal may be terminable, as some aspects of their agreement may not be satisfied, Spirit said as recently as last week that it still expected to close the transaction in the first half of this year.
(Updates with analyst comment in fifth paragraph)
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