As the razzamatazz around the launch of the five-carrier Star Alliance subsides, Thai Airways International is emerging as the weak link in the chain and there is growing speculation that the carrier could be dumped for two other Asian carriers.

The other members of the alliance, Air Canada, Lufthansa, SAS and United, are known to share misgivings about the choice of Thai as the first Asian partner. The postponement of the new Bangkok airport leaves doubts over the carrier's ability to offer a viable hub. Moreover, Thai was leaking the details of Star months in advance of its launch - a fact not lost on some of the other airlines.

The Star grouping is certainly looking for a second Asian partner, which sources close to the alliance have already identified as Cathay Pacific. Chris Bowers, senior vice-president international at United, refuses to confirms this and will only say: 'We want to find an additional partner for the Asia/China region, but I am not going to name names.' He adds that Star is looking to add another four carriers on top of a second Asian carrier. Cathay is known to have put all alliance talks on hold until after the return of Hong Kong to Chinese control.

More significantly, though, it has emerged that Singapore Airlines could be preparing to ditch its long-standing equity partner Delta Air Lines, and conceivably Swissair, and join up with Star as Thai's replacement. Furthermore, speculation is rife about SIA's future alliance plans as the carrier heads towards an extensive commercial partnership with Australia's Ansett.

Sources close to SIA suggest the carrier could be involved in a major strategic realignment over the next 12 months, on the back of disillusionment over the lack of benefits from its current partnerships.

Both Ansett and its 50 per cent owner Air New Zealand are already closely allied with United through codeshare services. Stronger links are likely to be established with Air New Zealand, at least, following the signing of an open skies deal between the US and New Zealand in late May.

Ansett is close to concluding a major agreement with SIA which is expected to include codeshares, joint pricing and a frequent flyer partnership. This would create a strong rival grouping on the Kangaroo Route between Australia and Europe to challenge the dominance of the Qantas-British Airways alliance.

Sources confirm that there have also been 'tentative discussions' on SIA taking an equity stake in Ansett, involving the purchase of at least part of News Ltd's 50 per cent share, though this may take longer to finalise than a commercial deal because of regulatory requirements.

None of the airlines will comment publicly on possible changes to alliance partners. 'It's about marching into the divorce court one day and getting remarried the next,' says a source at one of the airlines, an apparent reference to the prospect of SIA dumping Delta and teaming up with rival US operator United.

Sydney-based analyst Peter Harbison of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation suggests the relationship is 'far more promiscuous' than marriage. 'Everyone is looking to maximise their own opportunities in a shifting world and today's relationship isn't necessarily the best one for tomorrow.'

Harbison says the SIA-Delta partnership 'has been characterised by a fairly steady erosion over the last couple of years, more because of what Delta has been doing than what SIA has been doing.'


Source: Airline Business