Kevin O'Toole/LONDON

BRITISH AIRWAYS chairman Sir Colin Marshall shrugs off uncertainties over the fate of its US partner USAir, although he admits that the UK carrier has few clues over the likely outcome of the United and American Airlines approaches to the US airline.

"We have no feel for whether United, American or someone else will make a bid. It's quite possible that nothing is going to happen. We just don't know at this time," he says.

"Ideally, if another airline acquires USAir, we would look at an expanded US alliance," he says, adding that BA has already received approaches from several US airlines.

Speculation has been rife as analysts and industry personnel alike attempt to calculate the possible permutations. Among the more interesting is the prospect of a powerful transatlantic alliance with American. Chairman Bob Crandall has given no signals about the carrier's likely intentions, but as he points out, American is the only US carrier committed to building its European hub at London Heathrow.

With prospects of a major breakthrough in the UK-US bilateral talks looking remote, American may have to look at other options to fulfil its ambitions to expand across the Atlantic.

There is also talk that partners Northwest Airlines and KLM may enter the fray, either jointly or separately. Pieter Bouw at KLM, which holds a growing cash pile, has stressed the Dutch airline's need to expand market share in Europe, while Northwest is preparing to put up the guards against a hostile bid.

Hollis Harris, Air Canada chairman and a veteran of the US airline industry, has added his voice to the debate, remarking in a recent speech in Washington that the USAir move appears to be the first volley in a new wave of US restructuring. "We can expect to see this phenomenon of consolidation accelerating," he says.

"Northwest and Continental, as well as airlines like America West, will probably be put in play and certainly courted by other mega carriers," says Harris. Northwest's valuable Pacific routes would make a key addition to the network of American, he adds, going on to predict that international consolidation will leave only three or four clusters of mega-carriers.

Air Canada has a 23.8% stake in Continental, but Harris cannot confirm a press report that the US partner is itself courting potential airline suitors, including United. "I think everybody is talking to everybody, but I don't think there is anything going on that is as significant as the United/USAir discussions," Harris says.

Source: Flight International