Chris Jasper/LONDON Andrew Doyle/MUNICH Paul Lewis/WASHINGTON DC

The new Delta Air Lines/Air France alliance, announced amid much fanfare last week, has had a significant impact on other major airlines and could ultimately dictate the future strategic direction to be followed by carriers including Swissair and Continental Airlines.

No sooner had the ink dried on the new Franco-US deal than Swissair and Sabena, which Swissair part owns, announced a transatlantic codeshare agreement with American Airlines. Given that Austrian is to be added in the future, the deal would appear to be a natural successor to the existing Atlantic Excellence alliance, which ties the three European carriers to Delta.

Though Swissair maintains that the Delta partnership will continue for the foreseeable future, and rejects the possibility of itself joining a global alliance - whether Star, oneworld, the emerging Wings group or the new combination - sources at the carrier admit there are questions over these positions.

Swissair executive vice-president sales and marketing, Lee Shave, recently admitted that while the airline is committed to building the Europe-only Qualiflyer alliance, the one development that might cause it to think long and hard about its overall strategy would be a Delta-Air France axis.

Delta says it wants to bring Swissair and its other Atlantic Excellence partners into the new alliance, but Shave dismisses the possibility of links with Air France, given the operational overlaps involved. Swissair's revelation that it may dispose of its 4.6% stake in Delta seems to suggest that a divorce may not be far away, although the US giant - eager to placate the Swiss carrier - says it has no plans to sell its reciprocal holding.

Swissair's argument against joining a global grouping centres on a fear of domination by larger airlines, and SAirGroup stresses: "We are convinced that there is going to be room alongside these huge alliances." Should Swissair have a change of heart, oneworld would seem its most obvious home, and British Airways chief executive Bob Ayling last week said he would never refuse to talk to anyone, while adding that the alliance has "as many members and potential members as we can manage".

The strategic future of Continental Airlines, an Air France partner, has also been complicated by the Delta deal, with the Houston-based airline admitting that it is "disappointed" with the agreement, while adding that its Air France codeshare runs until 2004 - apparently unaware that the French carrier has disavowed the accord. Continental's fortunes now seem inextricably linked to the Wings alliance of Northwest Airlines and European partners KLM and Alitalia, although its bid for membership has been complicated by US regulatory opposition to an equity tie up with Northwest. While it lacks a transatlantic deal, Continental is likely to remain open to other offers.

One European carrier soon to lose one of its US allies is British Midland, which says it will terminate a codeshare with American in March, before the planned launch of transatlantic services in summer next year. The move almost certainly prefaces a new alliance, with a deal with United Airlines and - ultimately - membership of Star its most likely manoeuvre.

• Swissair and Sabena take a step towards complete integration from 1 July, with the launch of a joint Airline Management Company which will run the pair.

The move is possible because of SAirGroup's 49.5% stake in the Belgian carrier - and although the Qualiflyer is already further down the path towards integration than most rivals, the alliance has no plans to blur the identities of member carriers.

Source: Flight International