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Former Varig employees protest at trade show as Star Alliance hints at new Latin American member 'within months'

Former European employees of Brazilian carrier Varig have organised a protest during Spain's Fitur tourism trade show, claiming that the successor airline to Varig should not be awarded any European traffic rights unless all former employees receive outstanding salaries. Meanwhile Star Alliance chief Jaan Albrecht says he expects the airline grouping to recruit a new Latin American airline within months, following the loss of Varig and, previously, Mexicana.

Varig was auctioned last year and a new airline, VRG Linhas Aéreas, has emerged in its place.

Speaking during the Fitur show in Madrid a union spokesman said: “We have organised here in Madrid a labour action representing all former European Varig employees.

“We want to make the authorities aware of the fact that [VRG] locked us out on 15 December, just after receiving its new aircraft operator’s certificate, without paying December’s salary nor any legal severance package.”

Around 150 people are affected in Europe, says the spokesman, of which 40 reside in Spain. He says that VRG is the legal successor to Varig and should be held accountable. If the airline is found to be wanting with regard to European labour laws, he adds, traffic rights should be withheld.

Spanish aviation authorities, he claims, have committed to study in depth “all implications” of any submission by VRG for route authority to the country.

Previous protests by disgruntled Varig employees have included the controversial decision by three flight attendants to pose naked in the Brazilian edition of Playboy magazine to highlight the plight of unpaid employees.

Speaking to Flight during a press event in Madrid hosted by Star carrier Spanair, Albrecht said the alliance was holding talks with several airlines in the region, including a candidate in Central America.

Aerolíneas Argentinas, he says, is showing “interesting signs of progress” while Brazil has “first-class” airlines which are primarily serving the domestic market.

Central America’s Transportes Aéreos Centroamericanos (TACA)  has previously admitted being courted by Star, although at the time it said it considered bilateral partnerships to be more beneficial. Central America’s other major carrier, Copa Airlines, is an associate member of SkyTeam.

While Albrecht makes clear that suggestions that Star is closing on any particular airline would be speculative, he states: “The announcement of a new Latin American Star Alliance carrier is only a matter of months.”

He says that the expulsion of Varig as a member of the alliance amounted to a “friendly divorce”, adding that successor carrier VRG Linhas Aéreas’ decision to redeploy its fleet away from the main Brazilian international airports does not serve Star’s interests.

“As part of its post-bankruptcy restructuring strategy [VRG] assigned first priority to defending its slots at São Paulo Congonhas international airport and Rio de Janeiro Santos-Dumont downtown airports, redeploying its reduced fleet to these airports.

“The international Star Alliance carriers are, however, flying into their respective international airports, Guarulhos and Galeão [Antônio Carlos Jobim international airport]. Obviously, with our partner using different airports, there is no feed and no use for an alliance. This does not exclude [Varig’s successor] from being reconsidered in the future.”

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