Kieran Daly/HAMBURG Herman de Wulf/BRUSSELS

SWISSAIR PRESIDENT Otto Loepfe has confirmed that the carrier would like to take a majority shareholding in Belgian flag carrier Sabena, if European Union (EU) rules made that feasible.

Loepfe does not explicitly declare Swissair's ownership ambition, but concedes that its stated concern about the EU legislation arises only because those regulations limit its plans with Sabena. Switzerland voted not to join the EU in 1994.

Loepfe's remarks, delivered as Swissair accepted its first Airbus A321 in Hamburg, immediately followed Belgian transport minister Elio di Ruppo's revelation that Swissair's proposals to take a 49.9% Sabena-stake include a clause stating that "...should the European Union change its rules governing flag carriers within five years, Swissair can decide unilaterally to increase its share in Sabena".

Loepfe says: "We are making good progress [with the Belgian Government]. We expect something in the next few weeks and months. We are negotiating about the possibilities of ownership and structures."

He says that, of Swissair's inter-continental partners, Delta Air Lines and Singapore International and the other two European Quality Alliance (EQA) members, Austrian Airlines and Scandinavian Airlines System (SAS), the first three are happy with the Sabena plan, but SAS is reserving its options and might not stay, if the deal goes through.

Loepfe explains: "Austrian is very positive about this proposal and so is Delta. But, for the time being, we make it clear, that it is one to one [with Sabena]. We don't want to make it too complicated now."

Belgium's di Ruppo suggests that Swissair is also willing to help increase the present Sabena capital, now BFr16 billion ($510 million), to BFr22 billion. That implies a Swiss injection of BFr12 billion, since BFr6 billion would be needed to take over the shares of the Finacta Group, which consists of Air France, Groupe Bruxelles Lambert, Credit Communal, the SMAP insurance company and the National Investment Company. The result would be a reduction of the Belgian Government's share, from 62.5% to 50.5%, while Swissair would hold 49.5%.

Source: Flight International