Deal expected to lead to merger as Belgian Government cash puts Sabena subsidiary back in business with new name

Just three days after the collapse of Belgium's national airline Sabena, the carrier's low-cost commuter subsidiary Delta Air Transport (DAT) resumed flying as an independent airline. The restart was secured thanks to an €125 million ($111 million) credit from the Belgian Government and a promise from two of the country's major financiers to invest a further €155 million, with regional governments also providing €45 million between them.

DAT aims to carry six million passengers a year and break even during 2003. Operating a fleet of 14 BAE Systems Avro RJ85s, 12 Avro RJ100s and six British Aerospace 146s, DAT carried 3.3 million people, 37% of Sabena's passengers, in 2000. Unlike its bankrupt parent the subsidiary made a profit last year.

The European Commission approved switching the Belgian Government's €125 million "temporary bridging credit", intended for Sabena, to DAT to allow the airline to resume flying and stop rivals from taking over Sabena slots at European airports. Virgin Express, VLM, Air France and British Midland are among those who have already stepped in to fill the gap.

The first DAT flight to take to the air again on 10 November was flight QG2719 to Geneva. The speedy resumption of services was partly the result of a €200 million investment by the business empires of Viscount Etienne Davignon and Count Maurice Lippens.

The carrier will serve 45 destinations in Europe using DAT's regional jet fleet plus eight former Sabena Airbus A319s. Routes to the USA and Africa will be served with six ex-Sabena A330s.

DAT Plus, as the airline is temporarily known, was boosted last week by an interim co-operation deal with local rival Virgin Express. The two will codeshare on some flights, and mount joint sales. The deal, which ends next month when DAT is put up for sale by the Sabena receiver, precedes an expected merger.

The new DAT will have 2,645 staff. The low-cost airline is hiring former Sabena employees, but on dramatically reduced wage scales. DAT pays pilots 34% less than their former employer, while cabin crew get 42% less.

Sabena's demise is a social disaster in Belgium, with an estimated 6,000 or 50% of Sabena staff losing their jobs and twice that many from a wide range of suppliers.

Maintenance specialist Sabena Technics says it is continuing to operate normally despite the sudden demise of Sabena. Doubts had been expressed over the viability of the maintenance arm, but Sabena Technics insists that it is a legal entity "separate from the airline and the bankruptcy judgement [on Sabena] does not apply to us." Despite that, the company announced it will furlough 700 employees following the demise of Sabena. All Sabena aircraft under maintenance have been towed out to join a 50-strong fleet parked on taxiways. It remains unclear what role Sabena Technics will play in the DAT Plus operations but the maintainer says that is continuing to "actively seek investors" and that the process is at an advanced stage. Sabena Technics will continue to operate an engine maintenance joint venture with Snecma.

Source: Flight International