Copa and TACA poised to join Star

Cancun
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Both of Central America's leading carriers, Copa and TACA, are poised to join Brazil's TAM as new members in the Star Alliance.

TACA chief executive Roberto Kriete revealed today on the sidelines of the ALTA airline leaders forum in Cancun that the El Salvador-based carrier has submitted an application to join Star.

Kriete says the application is now being evaluated by Star and "the decision is supposed to be this year". He adds that once accepted "implementation may take six to 12 months".

Copa chief executive Pedro Heilbron, meanwhile, said on the sidelines of the forum that the Panamanian carrier has decided to leave SkyTeam and is in exclusive talks with Star.

Heilbron says Copa has no "commercial choice" but to leave SkyTeam because its main partner, Continental, decided earlier this year to leave SkyTeam for Star. Continental sponsored Copa's entrance into SkyTeam. Continental is scheduled to formally leave SkyTeam for Star late next year but Heilbron says "we have some time" to decide what it should do.

"We're looking at all our options," he says. "We won't rush it."

But those options do not include staying in SkyTeam or joining oneworld, according to Heilbron. So it seems the only thing Copa needs to decide is whether it should join Star as a full or regional member and when it should make the switch. Copa is now an affiliate of SkyTeam rather than a full member.

Getting both TACA and Copa concludes a drastic turnaround for Star in Latin America, which in early 2007 lost its only Latin member, Varig. But Star succeeded last month at persuading TAM to join and the Brazilian carrier will formally become a member late next year or in early 2010.

With TAM, TACA and Copa, Star could overcome oneworld as the largest alliance in Latin America. Oneworld already has Lan and American Airlines, which is the largest US carrier in Latin America, and early this year accepted Mexicana as a new member.

Mexicana chief executive Manuel Borja said at a press conference at the forum that the carrier, which several years go left Star, is on track to formally join oneworld in April.

SkyTeam, meanwhile, will be left with Aeromexico as its only Latin American member. Aeromexico chief executive Andres Conesa says SkyTeam's head office in Amsterdam has started to look for new members in the region but would not provide any details.

"We don't like to lose any members," Conesa says. "They were good members but it was their decision to leave."

Having both Copa and TACA may seem like too much power for one alliance in Central America but Kriete points out Copa has more of a Latin-focused network while TACA is more US-centric. "We don't have much overlap with Copa," Kriete says.

He adds TACA selected Star after evaluating oneworld and SkyTeam, concluding "we have the best fit with them and they are the best of the alliances".

Kriete doesn't expect any challenges to TACA's application and says joining "should be fairly easy" because TACA already codeshares with Star founding member United Airlines. He points out that TACA is also now in the process of implementing a codeshare with another founding member, Lufthansa.

For more news from the ALTA airline leaders forum in Cancun see the Airline Business Daily issues from the show