Herman de Wulf/BRUSSELS

American Airlines has joined the discussions over the future of Sabena indicating its interest to the Belgian Government and the SAirGroup about exploring a link with the ailing airline.


The US carrier is already a codeshare partner with Sabena and SAir subsidiary Swissair and the oneworld alliance, of which American is a founder along with British Airways, has been touted as the most likely partner in the Zurich-based company's search to join an alliance.

However, the likelihood of the two European airlines joining a single alliance has been diminished by a statement from SAir indicating the beginning of the end for the tie-up. "Swissair and Sabena require a substantial amount of independence to pursue their respective strategic options," it says.

American's interest comes as SAir and the Belgian Government revealed that talks are to open on the future of their co-operation, despite striking a deal with airlinetrade unions on the recapitalisation of the bankruptcy-threatened national carrier.

A meeting of the Sabena board in Brussels last week agreed to issue new share certificates raising €250 million ($230 million) for the airline, following the acceptance by unions of the airline's Blue Sky cost-cutting programme. At one stage an American representative is believed to have been an observer at the meetings with the unions.

Blue Sky aims to save BFr14.4 billion ($327 million) this year and next, including BFr2.2 billion in annual labour savings approved by staff and pilots only in the face of Sabena's threatened liquidation.

SAir owns 49.5% of Sabena and had been due to increase this to 85%, but has already begun to dismantle its network of European Qualiflyer alliances following the resignation of Philippe Bruggisser as chief executive.

A boardroom source within the group adds that it agreed to the Sabena recapitalisation - due to take place on 25 February - only because of a prior agreement with the Belgian Government signed in January.

Sabena president and chief executive Christopher Müller says his airline "has left intensive care but is still very sick", but aims to break even next year and return to profitability in 2003.

Marc Rochet, the newly appointed head of SAir's French airlines, has meanwhile warned that the three carriers - AOM, Air Littoral and Air Liberté - are losing Fr300,000 ($42,000) an hour, and may be beyond salvation.

SAir had intended to merge the three to compete with Air France, but Rochet, who succeeds Paul Reutlinger, says he has been tasked with "redefining a strategy" for the operation. In a letter to employees obtained by Flight International's sister on-line publication Air Transport Intelligence, Rochet - once chairman of Air Liberté under previous owner British Airways - reveals that the three lost more than Fr2.5 billion last year.

Source: Flight International