London (CNN Business)The chief executive of one of Europe’s largest low-cost carriers stepped down Thursday from the company he founded and still partially owns.
Chief Financial Officer Geir Karlsen will act as interim CEO while the company hires a permanent replacement.
Norwegian Air shook up global aviation by offering discounted flights within Europe and to the United States, Asia, and Latin America. Kjos owns part of a 17% stake in the carrier through a holding company under his control.
The company’s future has been called into question after a rapid expansion left it in debt. In January, it sought to raise 3 billion Norwegian kroner ($352 million) to shore up finances.
Analysts say the departure of Kjos, a former fighter pilot who led the company for 17 years, could remove a roadblock to a possible sale to a larger aviation group. It previously rebuffed offers from British Airways owner IAG.
“Bjoern has been the driving force behind the business — the big question now is whether [Norwegian Air] can maintain momentum as he takes a less active role,” said analysts at research firm Bernstein.
Shares in the company dropped more than 7% in Oslo after it announced Kjos’ departure and reported earnings for the second quarter. Revenue and profit both topped analyst expectations.
Norwegian Air was founded in 1993 as a small regional airline in Scandinavia, but it now flies Boeing ( Dreamliner aircraft from bases in Barcelona, Copenhagen, London, Paris, Rome and Stockholm to some of the main tourist and business destinations in the United States. )
The company was forced to cut several routes after the Ethiopian Airlines disaster led to a global grounding of Boeing 737 Max 8 jets, of which Norwegian Air was a launch customer.
Norwegian Air is seeking compensation from Boeing. It said Thursday that the grounding will cost it 700 million Norwegian kroner ($82 million) in 2019.
The European aviation industry has had a tough time recently. Icelandic budget carrier Wow Air ceased operations in March, following the demise of Germania and British airline Flybmi a month earlier.