Aerolineas plans fresh start as Marsans steps in

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DAVID KNIBB SEATTLE

Spain's state-holding company has agreed the sale of its 92% stake in Aerolineas Argentinas to the Marsans group in what could well be the best news for any Latin American airline this year.

With debts halved, new capital and alliance prospects, Aerolineas is ready to make a new start. But that may depend on its unions, who have greeted the new owners with suspicion.

The Marsans group, which is privately held by Spanish interests, includes Air Comet, charter airline AirPlus, a Spanish tour operator and Spanair, a joint venture with SAS of which subsidiary AirPlus Argentina is a part.

Marsans is not paying SEPI for its shares, but has agreed to assume half of the $1.2 billion Aerolineas debt. This may provide SEPI with some reimbursement for the substantial operating expenses it has incurred over the years.

The Marsans group has promised no involuntary layoffs for two years, and pledges to raise $50 million of fresh capital: 10% from airline staff and 15% from institutional investors in Argentina. If neither group takes up their right to a stake, Marsans could be responsible for raising the entire amount.

SEPI says that it chose Marsans over three other bidders, including two from Argentina, mainly due to Marsans' offer to assume half the airline's debts. All other bids left SEPI vulnerable to further financial risks.

Since 1990 the Spanish Government, through SEPI, has pumped $1.8 billion into Aerolineas. The Spanish holding company denies Spanish ties affected its choice. Grupo Marsans won because it made the best offer "by far", a SEPI official said. Nationality did not influence the sale of Aerolineas," he added.

The first goal for Marsans is to end the chaos that has plagued embattled Aerolineas for at least 18 months. Luis L£pori, local head of the group, told reporters in Buenos Aires: "Today, Aerolineas Argentinas is prostrate. It has planes that do not fly, mechanics gazing in grief at airplanes, administrative employees looking at the roof. All that must change."

The new owner is hoping for synergies with other companies in the Marsans group. By year-end it plans to restore some suspended international routes. Since it came under court protection in June, Aerolineas has operated only 30% of its domestic and 10% of its international flights.

Aerolineas hopes to return to its most profitable international destinations - Madrid, Auckland and Sydney - shortly. It also aims to restart Miami services as soon as US Department of Transportation approval is obtained.

Links with Star Alliance carriers are also possible. Spanair, part of the Marsans group, is 49% owned by Star member SAS and is closely allied with Lufthansa. Aerolineas might give Star a presence in South America's southern cone, now dominated by oneworld's LanChile.

The Marsans group insists it will only resume flights on routes that are profitable. This has sparked its first confrontation with Aerolineas' unions, which fear Marsans might divert routes to its own affiliate airlines.

Union leaders have demanded a meeting, but, In what may be a sign of changing times, Antonio Mata, the new Spanish president of Aerolineas, said: Where, how and when destinations are picked is strictly a commercial decision. No meeting is going to resolve it."