Andrzej Jeziorski/SINGAPORE

Debt-ridden Malaysia Airlines (MAS) is closing on an ownership change, with SAir Group confirming its interest in the Asian carrier and major shareholder Naluri revealing plans to sell its 29% stake to the Malaysian Government, which says it will sell a stake to a foreign airline.

Some reports claim SAir is already conducting due diligence into MAS, although the Swissair parent officially denies this. Other reports say SAir executives have met with Malaysian Government officials and that SAir has issued proposals on how Kuala Lumpur International Airport might be transformed into a major regional hub, and on the potential benefits to MAS of joint cargo and catering operations with SAir.

The Swiss group will confirm only that it is in talks over the expansion of existing commercial agreements between Swissair and MAS - the two codeshare between Kuala Lumpur and Zurich.

Naluri chairman and major shareholder, Tajudin Ramli, has meanwhile confirmed that he is to sell the holding company's stake in MAS to the government. Tajudin says that with "personal debts close to a billion ringgit" ($263 million) he has no more money to put into an airline which has debts of 9.81 billion ringgit (nearly 80% in US dollar loans). The airline was hit hard by the 1997 Asian crisis and, more recently, by soaring aviation fuel prices.

MAS has reported a net loss of 398 million ringgit for its first six months to September compared with a 275 million ringgit net profit for the same period last year. Turnover grew 20% to 4.6billion ringgit. The Malaysian Government has confirmed that it will buy some or all of Naluri's holding and offer a minority stake to a foreign carrier.

MAS has previously been linked with potential investors including KLM, Qantas and Northwest Airlines. The latter has just secured US anti-trust immunity to codeshare with MAS.

Northwest will attach its code to MAS flights from Kuala Lumpur to Los Angeles, Tokyo and Nagoya from January, while MAS will do likewise on Northwest services.

Source: Flight International