SkyTeam members could top 20 by 2012: chairman

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SkyTeam expects its recent recruitment drive to continue into next year and believes the alliance could reach 20 or more members come 2012.

The alliance marked its 10th anniversary this year and its first full year with a central management organisation, by adding two new members - Tarom and Vietnam Airlines - and paving the way for four more to join. This will take its membership to 16.

"We have been speeding up [recruitment] in the past two years. It was one of the goals that was set," said SkyTeam managing director Marie-Josesph Male, speaking during a press conference in Paris following the SkyTeam governors' last meeting of the year.

Asia has been at the heart of much of this year's activity. China Eastern, its merger partner Shanghai Airlines - which quit Star Alliance at the end of October - and Taiwan's China Airlines all chose SkyTeam this year and are on course to join next year.

On top of this strong position in China, SkyTeam is keen to boost its presence in southeast Asia, where Garuda Indonesia is a candidate, but SkyTeam chairman Leo van Wijk identifies India and Latin America as its priorities.

"The key areas where we don't have that [strong network] presence are India - which is a huge market and fast growing - and Latin America. These are the two most important regions [to find more partners]," he says.

SkyTeam, which already has Aeromexico in Central America, is close to finalising moves to bring in Aerolineas Argentinas to bolster its presence in Latin America. The signing of a formal deal, delayed from late last month following the sudden death of former Argentine president Nestor Kirchner, is expected shortly.

"Aerolineas Argentinas has been through a very turbulent period in the past. But it has restructured and it is renewing its fleet," says Male.

Van Wijk says there is no single solution for Latin America given that the market, despite some recent consolidation moves, is still fragmented. "Brazil is the big market and that is a fast-growing market as well. There are other candidates, but they are relatively small and there is no one carrier in Latin America that covers all the region," he says. "So we will look at multiple options. But Brazil is key."

In India Jet Airways is a candidate - Air India and Kingfisher are already bound for Star and Oneworld respectively - and it has just sealed a codeshare deal with SkyTeam partner Alitalia.

Long-stalled moves for Middle East Airlines to join appear to have picked up pace after the breaking of an impasse over retaining its frequent-flyer programme.

"We have a number of prospects in the pipeline. With all of these carriers we are in discussions to see if an agreement can be reached, and there are certainly more carriers that have expressed an interest," says van Wijk. "We expect [come] 2012 we will have a membership of 20-plus."