Herman de Wulf/BRUSSELS

Swissair has warned that it is prepared to pull out of its investment in strike-hit Sabena if it does not meet the cost-cutting targets being set for the loss-making Belgian carrier. Swissair confirms, however, that it is pressing ahead with a joint fleet-renewal programme to replace Airbus A310s.

The Swiss carrier's threat to withdraw from the alliance was revealed by Paul Reutlinger, Sabena's Swissair-appointed president, on 31 October at a meeting to announce a new labour agreement with the airline's four main unions.

Reutlinger says that he has been authorised to confirm reports that the Swissair board has agreed to allow the carrier to write off its investment in Sabena "-should this become necessary".

Swissair paid BFr6.5 billion ($207 million) for a 49.5% stake in Sabena in May 1995, in a deal which was seen as a last-ditch attempt to secure the Belgian carrier's future.

Reutlinger says that Swissair aims to see a return from this investment. "If this proves to be impossible to achieve, it may be sound policy to write off the investment and end the experiment," he says.

Swissair has set a target of returning Sabena to profits by 1998 and implemented the Horizon 98 cost-cutting plan, designed to shave BFr4.7 billion from the airline's expenses. Some BFr2 billion of the savings are due to come through reductions in labour costs, including measures for a two-year freeze on wage rises and a mix of workforce reductions and productivity increases.

Although Sabena's four official unions are poised to sign the deal, the ABPNL pilots union, which was not directly represented at negotiations, walked out in protest at the terms.

After a day of chaos at Brussels Airport, the 550 pilots agreed to return to work, claiming that they did not want to inflict further "damage" on the airline.

Reutlinger says that the airline has not yet recovered from the strike in February. He adds that 1996 is likely to be another poor year for the airline.

Despite the warnings from Swissair management over withdrawal from Sabena, the two carriers are continuing to work on planned co-operation at operating level. Peter Gysel, head of fleet development, says that a decision is due "within the next few months" on a joint replacement for the A310 in both airline fleets. The choice is between the Airbus A330-200 or Boeing 767-300ER, he says. Swissair operates eight A310-300s, while Sabena has two 200s and a single -300.

While the A330-300 is considered too large for Swissair/Sabena's requirements, with around 295 seats in three classes, Airbus' recently launched A330-200 "shrink" carries 256 passengers. Gysel says that longer range is a key consideration as well as the size.

As part of its efficiency drive, Sabena plans to streamline its long-haul fleet to a single type by 2000. Its two McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30s and at least two of its A310s are due to be phased out in 1997, leaving two Boeing 747-300s and four A340s, one of which is on lease to Air France.

Swissair and Sabena are also jointly studying a new high-capacity long range type to replace their fleets 747-300s.

Additional reporting by Andrew Doyle.

Source: Flight International