Bizarre Thai love triangle

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David Mann

Singapore Airlines, Lufthansa and Qantas are among the latest suitors to be linked with buying a stake in Thai Airways International, as doubts linger over the airline's future membership of the Star Alliance.

SIA, due to join Star in the near future, has confirmed its interest in a 25 per cent stake in Thai together with its alliance partner, Lufthansa, but refuses to comment further at this stage.

Lufthansa, meanwhile, denies interest in a stake. A spokesman says, 'Lufthansa has no plans to take up equity in Thai. It is not Lufthansa's usual practice to acquire a stake in its Star Alliance partners.'

The International Monetary Fund is placing pressure on the Thai government to reduce its 93 per cent stake in Thai, as part of a package of reforms agreed upon in return for a US$17.2 billion economic bail out.

Other airlines said to be interested in a stake in Thai include BritishAirways and its Australian partner Qantas Airways, Air France, and United Airlines.

According to recent local reports, Thai president Thamnoon Wanglee says Star partners would get priority on Thai shares. A Thai Airways spokesman meanwhile indicates that: 'Any company or airline that wishes to purchase [Thai] shares is free to express an interest'.

Thai is adamant that it will remain in the Star Alliance, irrespective of another Asian airline entering the fold. 'If SIA did come into Star it wouldn't affect our membership. If another joins the six partners it will only strengthen Star,' says a Thai spokesman.

There has been speculation that if Qantas allied itself with Thai, the move would precipitate Thai's exit from Star. Qantas is said to be keen on an alliance with Thai to compete with SIA's tie-up with Air New Zealand and Australia's number two carrier Ansett.

Air New Zealand and Ansett have been reported as being the next likely members of Star after SIA. Meanwhile, All Nippon Airways has publicly acknowledged that it hopes to join the Star alliance.

Analyst Peter Negline of Solomon Smith Barney says the amount of foreign interest in Thai fits the global trend of consolidation in the industry. Negline says it would be inappropriate if SIA did not talk to Thai about a stake.