Star expects to add more members in Latin America and Africa

São Paulo
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The Star Alliance is focusing recruitment efforts in Africa and Latin America as the grouping is poised to expand beyond 30 members.

Star Alliance CEO Jaan Albrecht says "our main focus now is Africa" as Star looks to continue expanding as part of its "white spot strategy". He says a second focus is South America - "a continent that offers great opportunities".

Brazil's TAM became Star's 27th member and first in Latin America at a 13 May ceremony in Sao Paulo. Albrecht said at the ceremony that Greek's Aegean Airlines will be the 28th member and is on course to formally join in the "summertime of this year". Aegean is in the process of merging with Olympic Airways, and when it formally joins Star the carrier will be known as Olympic.

Albrecht says Air India will be Star's 29th member but did not specify when the carrier would formally join. Both Air India and Aegean have already been accepted by Star and are now going through the integration process.

In Latin America, Star has been talking to Avianca-TACA and Copa. Star invited both Avianca-TACA CEO Fabio Villegas and Copa CEO Pedro Heilbron to Sao Paulo this week to participate in some of the alliance's meetings

Heilbron told ATI that talks with Star continued this week and Copa still plans to decide around mid-year whether to join Star or stay independent. Copa has been considering following Continental Airlines into Star since the two carriers exited SkyTeam last year.

Continental is Copa's largest bilateral partner and previously owned a stake in the Panamanian airline group. Helilbron says Continental's recently announced plan to merge with fellow Star member United Airlines does not have any negative impact on Copa's Star decision process.

"It's better. They just got twice as big," Heilbron says of the combined Continental-United.

Albrecht also says a merged Continental-United is a positive development for Star. "This is good for our customers, this is good for our members, this is good for Star Alliance," he says.

He points out that Lufthansa in recent years has acquired several other Star members. "We look forward to alliances within alliances," Albrecht says.

Heilbron says Copa's Colombian subsidiary Aero Republica would join Star with Copa if the decision is made to become a Star member. As a result Star could potentially have two Colombian members as Avianca-TACA also plans to decide this year on whether to join Star. Heilbron, however, says a potential Aero Republica-Avianca conflict would not stop Copa from joining Star.

"Every alliance has overlaps. They get solved," Heilbron says.

If Avianca-TACA joined Star the alliance would also have two airline members in Brazil. The Avianca-TACA group includes airlines in several Latin American countries including Brazil's OceanAir, which was recently rebranded Avianca.

In Africa Star already has two members in South African Airways and EgyptAir. Albrecht says Star is already the strongest alliance in Africa but there is a desire to become even stronger. Star has been in talks with Ethiopian Airlines for the last few years and Ethiopian has said it plans to formally submit in 2010 an application to join the alliance.