Aerolineas Argentinas sale nears

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Spain's Grupo Marsans is in talks with Argentine businessman to sell part of its Aerolíneas Argentinas stake

The future ownership structure of flag carrier Aerolíneas ­Argentinas could be decided soon, with majority owner Grupo Marsans of Spain embroiled in negotiations with local businessman Juan Carlos Lopez Mena, who heads up Argentine ­shipping company Buquebus.

Jorge Molina, director of corporate affairs at Aerolíneas Argentinas, says the Argentine government aims to increase its stake in the flag carrier to 20% from 5% under a plan which, if negotiations prove successful, will see Marsans sell a further 36% stake to Lopez Mena. This would leave the Spanish travel group with a 34% shareholding the remaining 10% of the airline's shares would be in the hands of its employees.

"The idea is to open up the share capital to local businesses," says Molina, adding that nothing has been finalised and negotiations between Lopez Mena and Marsans president Gonzalo ­Pascual are still ongoing.

Marsans acquired its stake in Aerolíneas Argentinas and sister carrier Austral in 2001 through its subsidiary Air Comet. An industry source in Buenos Aires says it is unclear how Austral will be impacted by the proposed sale, and this has led to unrest and strike threats from the carrier's unions. The source adds that Aerolíneas Argentinas is struggling financially, a situation which is being compounded by the uncertainty over its future ownership.

Molina says Aerolíneas Argentinas incurred a net loss of $100 million in 2007 on revenues of $1.1 billion. He adds that the carrier's strategy going forward is to strengthen its Latin American network, particularly to destinations in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Mexico and Peru, and increase its European frequencies to Barcelona, Madrid and Rome. "In the future we will continue to strengthen our European network, and we are studying Paris and London," says Molina.

Aerolíneas Argentinas' growth strategy is dependent on an aircraft order placed by Marsans with Airbus in October 2007 for 10 A350-900s, four A380s, five A330-200s and 42 A320-family aircraft. The Spanish company has not yet indicated which of its subsidiaries will receive which aircraft.