Belgium's national airline Sabena has obtained protection against creditors for two months following the collapse of 49.5% shareholder Swissair. The Belgian Government has granted Sabena a BFr5 billion ($114 million) temporary credit to allow operations to continue for the time being while the Brussels Court of Commerce studies a restructuring plan. This will see the flag carrier downsized to a low-cost regional jet operator based on its Delta Air Transport (DAT) commuter subsidiary.

Sabena's move to seek protection from its creditors came as Swissair was unable to meet the terms of an agreement reached in August to provide the Belgian carrier with BFr10 billion in fresh capital in return for cancelling its original commitment to up its Sabena shareholding to 85%.

On 2 October, when Swissair said it could not pay the BFr5billion first instalment, the Belgian Government responded with a "temporary credit" for the same amount to Sabena, saying that it would sue Swissair for breach of contract.

The bridging loan is being studied by the European Commission (EC) to ensure that it meets the conditions for "aid for rescuing and restructuring", but Irish low-cost airline Ryanair, which operates a European hub from Brussels South Charleroi airport, plans to file a complaint with the EC against the credit, which it considers a subsidy.

The restructuring plan presented by Sabena chairman Fred Chaffart and president and chief executive officer Christoph Müller is understood to involve the creation of a new Sabena, dubbed Sabena Light, based on DAT. The airline would concentrate on European services, flying 50-seat regional jets and employing 3,000 fewer than Sabena's present 12,000 workforce.

Some 57% of Sabena staff have already voted in favour of the new business plan, but 250 Sabena pilots responded in early October with a four-day strike, claiming that "they would rather destroy Sabena than accept the plan" which they believe will lead to bankruptcy anyway. The industrial action was supported primarily by Airbus A320/A321 pilots who realise there will be no place for them in a downsized Sabena. They are calling for priority training to fly the regional jets while keeping their existing salaries - a demand Sabena management has already said is economically impossible.

Source: Flight International