David knibb/ SEATTLE

Mexicana is due to launch a new tier of membership within the Star Alliance if, as expected, it signs up as a member of the global grouping this month.

According to sources within Star, while the Mexican carrier will behave externally as any other partner, internally it will be accorded a more junior status. Existing Star members are already privately referring to this new level of member as a "Starlet".

Airline sources say that Mexicana is due to announce an agreement to join the alliance early in July, after a management board meeting in Mexico City. The carrier, part of Cintra, Mexico's state-holding company, will be publicised to customers in the same way as any other full member. But internally it will be regarded as a lower-level partner. Sources suggest the main difference will come in terms of its influence in alliance decision-making and its financial contributions to the grouping.

Although Star is not a legal entity and there are no formal financial ties between members, the alliance has a five-year budget for operational activities in excess of $100 million. The contribution made by individual carriers is dependent on their size and the benefits they make in certain markets.

Like other members, however, Mexicana will still have to sign bilateral codeshare agreements with all members, and already holds links with Air Canada, Lufthansa and United. Neither will the Starlets be free to form partnerships with members of rival alliance groupings.

A second tier of membership has been in prospect for some time, but Star has hesitated in making the policy too public, for fear of weakening its overall brand identity out in the market.

Beyond the unofficial second-tier membership level, an informal third-tier membership level is being referred to within Star. This includes partners such as South African Airways and Emirates. These have no aspirations to tie themselves into the grouping but have some form of link with members.

Source: Airline Business