Paul Lewis/NEW YORK

The newly inaugurated SkyTeam alliance is setting its sights on challenging the Star and oneworld global alliances with plans to recruit additional members and extend its network into Eastern Europe, southern Asia and South America.

"Star alliance is the alliance we need to catch," says Leo Mullin, Delta Air Lines chairman and chief executive. "We anticipate in a very short period SkyTeam should pull into the number two position in world alliances and our goal is to eventually surpass Star," he adds.

The four founding SkyTeam members - Aeromexico, Air France, Delta and Korean Airlines (KAL) - collectively lay claim to annual traffic of 174 million passengers. With a fleet of 985 aircraft and group sales totalling $30.4 billion in 1999, it trails in third place behind oneworld and Star.

SkyTeam is putting a strong emphasis on its main hubs at Atlanta, Cincinnati, Mexico City, Paris Charles de Gaulle and the new Seoul Inchon Airport, due to open in March, all of which offer growth potential. Attention is focused on adding partners, particularly in the southern hemisphere.

"We're starting with four airlines and we want to add several, but no more than 10. South America and South-East Asia are points of interest and, in the longer term Africa, while China offers potential," says Yi-Taek Shim, KAL president and chief executive.

The next addition will be CSA Czech Airlines, which is expected to join by next March. Air France and Delta have bilateral alliances with TAM and Transbrasil and both are viewed as strong candidates, particularly if as expected the two Brazilian carriers merge.

South-East Asia presents no obvious strong candidate unless there is a realignment of the current alliance membership. "Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways are desirable, but are in Star and we have agreed not to touch members of existing alliances. In time we'll probably look at secondary regional airline partners," adds Shim.

Delta and Air France have also allied themselves respectively to China Southern Airlines and China Eastern Airlines, while KAL co-operates with China Northern. "Aviation in China is undergoing some restructuring and its involvement in any global alliance is subject to how that evolves," says Frederick Reid, Delta executive vice- president.

Reid also "wouldn't rule out" other North American operators joining, though this could prove a complication for its planned anti-trust immunity application. Recent speculation has centred on former Air France partner Continental Airlines aligning with Delta in the event that its current controlling shareholder Northwest Airlines merges with American Airlines.

Source: Flight International