American Airlines parent AMR is bidding for Spanish holding company SEPI's majority stake in Aerolineas Argentinas as it strives to diffuse a row over ownership of the carrier.

A source at American says AMR is heading a consortium of investors negotiating with SEPI and its sleeping partners, Merrill Lynch and Bankers Trust, which together control 68% of Aerolineas via an 80% stake in the airline's parent Interinvest. The deal could also involve American's oneworld ally LanChile, which had a bid for SEPI's stake rejected.

Complicating the issue is a rival bid apparently made by Continental Airlines, an Argentine transportation group and a US financial party. Continental is still trying to get into Latin America having failed once in bid for Aerolineas and again in a swoop for AeroPeru.

As part of a 1997 deal according to which American and Spain's Iberia, its ally in the oneworld alliance, each received a 10% stake in Interinvest, AMR had until the end of 1999 to find new investors. But SEPI's deadline passed, fuelling reports of Argentine and Spanish dissatisfaction with American's running of the carrier, and a possible US pull-out once its management contract expired at the end of last year.

The row has left Aerolineas in a state of "paralysis", according to an airline insider. It has stopped it completing a merger with sister carrier Austral (90% controlled by Interinvest) and prevented it from finalising the lease of two Airbus A340-300s due for delivery late last year. The airline may also have to return two A310s to Airbus after the failure of a tie-up with Aeropostal of Venezuela.

Argentine infrastructure minister Nicolas Gallo has also threatened to withhold ratification of an air services agreement with the USA until the situation is resolved. The move aims to show support for Aerolineas, while avoiding the bail-out of a carrier that lost a reported $150 million last year.

Source: Flight International