Andrew Doyle/MUNICH

Austrian Airlines may ditch its Qualiflyer alliance partners in favour of a rival grouping - partly due to the recent Air France-Delta Air Lines tie-up and partly as a knock-on effect of an Austrian Government block on plans by Qualiflyer leader SAirGroup to increase its share in the Vienna-based airline.

Austrian says it and the other Qualiflyer members linked to Delta through the Atlantic Excellence alliance - Swissair and Sabena - must "check all options" following the Franco-US deal. Extending the Atlantic relationship with the US major into membership of a global structure appears to be out of the question for the latter two carriers, which cannot live with the Air France link and which have already signed codeshares with American Airlines, possibly signalling a rift with Delta. Austrian's options appear wider, however, and the carrier last week expanded its own codeshares with Delta.

Austrian confirms it has been invited to join Air France and Delta (an invitation which in theory at least extends to Swissair and Sabena). Other possibilities include membership of the Star Alliance or oneworld.

"In the dynamic environment of worldwide co-operations and flight alliances, the co-operation of Delta Air Lines and Air France opens new perspectives for the European partners as well," says president Herbert Bammer. "Austrian Airlines will check all options, together with the partners of the Qualiflyer Group, until December."

The Vienna government's move to defend the independence of Austrian has meanwhile prompted calls by Lauda Air chairman Niki Lauda for a rapid re-evaluation of the alliance strategy of the Austrian Airlines Group (AUA)- to which Lauda belongs - and its focus on membership of Qualiflyer, that so far features only European carriers.

Lauda - a 30% shareholder in Lauda Air, of which Austrian owns 36% - argues that AUA should reconsider its future in the light of SAir's failure to increase its stake in Austrian, a defeat he believes may marginalise Austrian within Qualiflyer. SAir had planned to increase its 10% stake in Austrian to 25%by buying All Nippon Airways' 9% holding and sourcing the rest on the open market, giving it effective board-level control. Lauda predicts that Lufthansa will sell its 20% stake in his airline if Austrian joins a rival to Star.

Austrian has a codeshare with Air France and has announced that from 1 October, Delta will codeshare on its flights from Vienna to Atlanta and will drop its own service on the route. Delta will also place its code on Austrian's flights to Dubai and to Tbilisi, Georgia. While Delta sources suggest the carrier dropped flights to Vienna for economic reasons, the move could preface further developments, especially as Austrian has not yet joined Swissair and Sabena in a new codeshare with American Airlines.

Austrian will not comment on future co-operation with SAir, which says the failure to increase its stake in Austrian does not represent a barrier to co-operation.

Source: Flight International