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Holiday giant Preussag is to set up Belgian-based airline

Herman De Wulf/BRUSSELS

A new Belgian charter airline is being formed by German holiday giant Preussag (parent of Hapag-Lloyd) and its Belgian interests, which will reduce its dependence on local carrier Sobelair.

The new airline is being set up by TUI Belgiê, which groups Belgian tour operators Jetair, VTB and Belgium International Travel. Sobelair, the charter arm of part-SAirGroup-owned Sabena, flies 90% of Jetair's operations.

The new airline, called Hapag-Lloyd Belgium, will begin operations in 2001 - in time for next summer's season - from Brussels, using two Boeing 737-400's transferred from the German airline. Management will be Belgian and the aircraft will be registered in Belgium, according to Bart Brackx, chief executive of TUI Belgiê.

The development follows a major upheaval in the Belgian charter market, as Airtours-owned Air Belgium faces closure, Virgin Express pulls out of charter work to concentrate on scheduled operations and City Bird enters the fray.

Meanwhile loss-making Sobelair, which flies six 737-300/400s and three 767-300ERs, is expected to be affected by the restructuring of Sabena following the Belgian flag carrier's heavy losses. The airline is included in Sabena's "Blue Sky" programme, which was set up earlier this year as a brainstorming group to undertake a bottom up study of Sabena's financial problems and to find ways to end losses and turn in a profit by 2003.

TUI Belgiê is a 50/50 partnership between Germany's Hapag Lloyd group and the Belgian Brackx family, which founded the Jetair empire. Brackx says he expects Sobelair still to carry 70% of Jetair passengers after the new airline starts up, as its two 737-400s can only carry around 20% of the tour operating group's passengers.

City Bird is expanding its charter operations and will add five Boeing 737-800s to its short-haul fleet of four 737-300/400s. The carrier also plans to set up a French-based operation from Lille to provide a catchment area that includes most of Western Belgium. The operation would be created with German tour operator Neckermann.