The way General Electric’s aeroplane-leasing division handled the sale of planes on behalf of Alpstream, a Swiss-based aviation company, was “nothing short of madness”, the High Court was told this week.
Speaking as an expert witness for Alpstream, Adrian Lee, who specialises in selling second-hand aircraft, was harshly critical about what he claimed was the lack of effort GE made when marketing the seven Airbuses. GE denies any such negligence.
GE had lent a mortgage on the planes but repossessed them when the Alpstream-backed Blue Wings airline got into financial difficulties. GE had a duty of care to obtain the best price as part of its mortgage contract, so that all money obtained after it had recouped its loan could be passed on to Alpstream, a company in which Alexander Lebedev, whose son Evgeny Lebedev owns The Independent, has a major stake.
In the event, Alpstream claims, GE carried out a lavish refurbishment of the planes before selling them at an auction in London to another division of GE. No other bidders turned up to the auction apart from the GE division. The planes sold at a knockdown price leaving no money left for Alpstream, the Lebedev-backed company says.
Under cross-examination, Mr Lee said it was highly unusual for planes in relatively good condition to be sold in an auction, rather than through a wide-ranging negotiated sale process.
He said that, in his experience, auctions had a reputation for being mainly for older, less desirable planes. Stephen Moriarty, QC for General Electric’s GECAS division, pointed out that another witness had claimed auctions were not uncommon – a claim Mr Lee disputed.
Mr Lee said GE had not contacted nearly as many potential bidders as he would have done in a negotiated sale process, reducing the number of potential buyers.
GE had contact with 38 potential bidders and advertised the auction in trade magazines, but Mr Lee said that did not constitute anywhere near as much of a marketing effort as would be normal for such a number of high value planes.
“With the particular type of model that you have here, Airbus A320-200s, there are over 300 operators worldwide with around 3,000 aircraft in service amongst them, so from my point of view, to only contact…40… seems to be falling short of the effort required to gain best value for these aircraft.”
He said he would have contacted all 300 by email and then telephone to flush out the maximum potential interest.
However, he admitted that he was not an expert in the auctioning of aircraft, having only ever conducted negotiated sales.
Mr Lee was also extremely critical of GE’s decision to spend an average of $9 million per plane on refurbishments before the auction, describing it as “madness”. “If someone asked me ‘shall we do this?’ before we auctioned aircraft I would shout from the tallest steeple: “No.”… This is a huge investment in time and effort and resources and with the auction process there is no guarantee that anyone is going to buy the aircraft.”
Mr Moriarty countered that doing up the aircraft could make them easier to sell. He also pointed out that Mr Lee had not been selling aeroplanes at the time of the GE auction in 2010 and described his seven years in the aircraft remarketing industry as “footloose and fancy free” because he had been employed in other industries during his 30 year career.
He also cast doubt on Mr Lee’s independence as a witness, given that parts of his report into the planes sale had used the same wording as the Lebedev team’s own legal claim documents. Mr Lee said the fact that the wordings were identical did not detract from their accuracy.
The two sides also battled over whether a negotiated sale might have taken longer than an auction.
The case continues.