IN FOCUS: TAP at the crossroads as Lisbon looks to offload its state asset

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This year is likely to be a turning point for TAP Portugal, with attempts to secure a strategic partner and investor in the national carrier top of the agenda.

The Star Alliance carrier - which operates a fleet of 55 Airbus aircraft and also has a dozen A350-900s on order - is one of the assets cash-strapped Portugal is putting on the privatisation table this year to generate revenues in support of deficit cutting measures.

While the privatisation, and mechanism for the sale of a stake in the airline, is still to be formally launched, there has been no shortage of parties linked with interest in the carrier already. "Privatisation is our next challenge," says Fernando Pinto, TAP Portugal's long-serving chief executive who took the helm of the carrier a decade ago amid Swissair's aborted move for a 34% stake in the airline. TAP remains wholly-owned by the national government.

tap a319, steve flint/airteamimages.com

 © Steve Flint/AirTeamImages.com

Pinto believes the carrier's dominant market share on routes between Europe and Brazil makes it an attractive proposition for potential buyers and highlights the strategic advantage of its position on "the edge of Europe" to capture the fast-growing Brazilian market. In a decade, the Star Alliance carrier has seen its traffic between Brazil and Portugal jump from 300,000 passengers a year to 1.4 million in 2010, he says. "In my opinion, we are on the best edge of Europe," Pinto says. "We are the only airline that can do a flight to Brazil and come back on the same day with the same aircraft. Whoever wants to be interested in this market should be interested in TAP."

Pinto points to reported initial interest from International Airlines Group (IAG) and one or two Gulf carriers - though IAG Chief Executive Willie Walsh has played down any imminent activity, noting any advancement would depend on the Portuguese state and that it is not actively pursuing any other carrier besides its current move for British Midland.

The outcome of its privatisation will dictate TAP's long-term alliance position and could see it head into a third alliance camp in a decade. For example, any tie-up with IAG could see TAP Oneworld bound. TAP started the last decade as part of Swissair's Qualiflyer grouping, before joining Star Alliance in 2005 where it remains today.