TAP Air Portugal will become the latest European carrier to come under the partial ownership of SAir Group if plans for the Swiss company to acquire a 20% stake in the Portuguese state-owned flag-carrier are approved by the European Commission.

SAir Group says it hopes to complete the purchase as soon as possible, and has secured an option to increase its stake in TAP to 30% over the next four years. The Portuguese airline is a founder member of the European Qualiflyer Group, led by SAir Group company Swissair.

The sale of a minority stake to a strategic partner is the first step of TAP's long-awaited privatisation. Further shares are expected to be made available to employees and, later, to outside investors, though no timetable has been confirmed by the Portuguese Government.

SAir Group says the TAP deal "underpins our existing commercial collaboration with the airline and provides a firm basis for its further expansion and growth". The Swiss company recently acquired large minority stakes in France's AOM and LTU of Germany, and owns 49% of Belgium's Sabena.

SAir Group says its strategy is based on the belief that there is "no future for the smaller players in Europe" that are not fully integrated into a strong alliance.

Several of the SAir carriers are standardising on an all-Airbus fleet, including Sabena and Swissair, and TAP already operates a predominantly Airbus fleet. Its fleet includes 26 Airbuses - five A310s, nine A319s, eight A320s and four A340s - as well as seven Boeing 737-300s. A further 15 Airbuses are order - seven A319s, six A320s and two A321s.

Source: Flight International