Julian Moxon/PARIS

AIR FRANCE HAS ended its long-running search for transatlantic partners with the signing of commercial pacts with both Continental Airlines and Delta Air Lines. The French flag carrier also hints that an Asian partner could be signed up in the first half of 1997.

The US deals, which are still subject to Government approval, stop short of a full transatlantic alliance such as that formed by Lufthansa and United Airlines, or the pending deal between British Airways and American Airlines.

The USA and France have held talks on a new "open-skies" air bilateral agreement which would be a necessary first step to a fuller alliance, but negotiations broke down in March and little has been achieved since. Continental president Gordon Bethune believes, however, that the new US tie-ups could now be "the beginning of an opportunity" to achieve a new bilateral agreement.

Both US alliances call for a range of closer operational and marketing ties on areas such as interlining, computer reservation systems, passenger handling and joint commercial sales and marketing programmes. Bethune says that the agreement is "enormous" for Continental, opening up "tremendous flexibility" at the Air France hub at Paris Charles de Gaulle. Continental had signed a similar deal with Air France in 1993, following the US carrier's emergence from Chapter 11 protection, but that arrangement was never consummated.

Delta has focused its European alliance on the Swissair/Sabena/ Austrian Airlines grouping, and it says that this will not be threatened by the Air France deal. Delta chairman Ron Allen says that the deals could "-run in parallel", but raises the possibility of a wider-ranging co-operation under which the Air France tie-up "-could complement" the alliance.

Source: Flight International