THE SOUTH AFRICAN Government's plans for privatising domestic carrier Sun Air could get the go-ahead later this month, clearing the way for a sale by mid-1997.

Trade-union representatives on the Government's transport sectoral task team, which is charged with evaluating restructuring options for the state-owned airline, are understood to have been given until 20 October to respond to the proposed terms of the sale.

The impending privatisation is attracting interest from several potential investors, and the carrier is keen to secure a foreign strategic partner, "with overseas experience and wider influence", according to Sun Air chairman Dirk Ackerman. A foreign air line is limited by law to a 25% stake.

Possible suitors include Virgin Atlantic Airways, which began scheduled services between London Heathrow and Johannesburg on 2 October and has a codes-haring agreement with Sun Air.

Chairman Richard Branson, speaking in Johannesburg after the arrival of the inaugural flight from London, said that his Virgin group is studying strategies for establishing a pan-African airline operation, and that this could include acquisition of a stake in Sun Air.

Profitable Sun Air would retain its own identity under the agreement with Virgin, although the UK group has indicated that it may seek a controlling stake and rebrand Sun Air under the Virgin Express banner. "The [ownership] rules might well change," says Virgin, which adds that the use of Express colours would "strengthen the brand".

Meanwhile, at least one other European flag carrier is known to have tabled an offer for a stake in Sun Air (thought to be KLM, LTU or Lufthansa), although potential bidders have not yet been given access to the carrier's accounts to assess the value of the company.

Sun Air was previously Bop Air, the national airline of the former South African homeland state of Bophuthatswana.

Source: Flight International