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New strategy for SAirGroup to be unveiled

SAirGroup's new boss, Mario Corti, will present the company's new strategy on Monday

(Keystone Archive)

Ever since SAirGroup was plunged into crisis just over two months ago, dealers on the Swiss market have been waiting for news of just how bad the situation at the airline group really is. A news conference on Monday is expected to provide a lot of answers and indications of a new strategy.

The markets were nervous about the results on Friday, losing ground heavily.

With final results expected from the company on Monday, analysts are estimating SAirGroup will announce a loss for 2000 of between SFr2.2 and SFr2.7 billion ($1.28-1.57 billion).

The results will be presented by the new SAirGroup chairman and chief executive Mario Corti, former finance director at the Nestlé food group.

Corti, who was the only member of the last SAirGroup board of directors to survive a mass resignation three weeks ago, is widely expected to announce a new strategic focus. There has also been speculation about major redundancies.

Concerns about losses had already been mounting ahead of the departure of the SAirGroup chief executive, Philippe Bruggisser, at the end of January. He departed under a cloud after his policy of buying up stakes in loss-making foreign airlines was put on hold.

Stakes in airlines including France's AOM, Air Littoral, Air Liberté and Belgium's Sabena have since been called into question.

Zurich Kantonalbank airline analyst Patrick Schwendimann told swissinfo that the SAirGroup, which controls Swissair and regional carrier Crossair, has a range of problems that should be addressed at the news conference.

"First they have to find exit solutions for their portfolio in loss-making airlines abroad," explained Schwendimann. "They also need fresh equity to stabilise the balance sheet and will probably have to sell some profit-making businesses to finance the airline losses."

The SAirGroup also includes Gate Gourmet caterers, Nuance airport retailers, Atraxis IT services and Swissôtel hotels. The company has said that it has been studying the possible sale of its hotel business.

A series of boardroom disagreements and resignations at the troubled group - some of them played out in public - have added to the widespread interest in the ailing group, and in the results it is due to present.

One of the most spectacular resignations came less than a month ago when Moritz Suter - appointed head of the airline division - left the SAirGroup board after barely six weeks. His sudden resignation came amid reports that his cost-saving plans were causing a sharp division of opinion at executive level.

Corti remains something of an unknown quantity in the airline industry. However, he has already intimated in brief press statements that he will put an end to losses at the group, and change the corporate name back to Swissair.

In a media blitz just after his appointment in mid-March, he made it clear that he would simplify the structure of the company and there is speculation he could announce a drastic reorganisation.

Schwendimann told swissinfo that poor results from SAirGroup weren't the fault of the company alone.

"They had too many problems to solve in too short a time," he said. "The market environment didn't help matters either," he said. "Higher fuel costs and an increasingly competitive environment across Europe affected companies throughout the airlines sector."

Analysts attending the results conference in Zurich on Monday morning will also be looking for details of a possible alternative airline alliance for the SAirGroup.

Its present Qualiflyer alliance, in which Swissair is the leading player among a group of 11 far smaller airlines, is expected to fold and be replaced by a major airline alliance partner.

Top of the list of suggested partners has been the British Airways-led One World Alliance, in which Swissair and Crossair would most certainly play a junior role.

"Joining the One World Alliance at a later stage is quite likely and in the longer run there will be some impact on long-haul services for Swissair as a result," said Schwendimann.

The SAirGroup has suffered both on the stock market and in the public eye, following the past few months of uncertainty. It is likely to take the group some time to recover from the perception that it has been lacking in firm leadership and corporate direction.

"Corti has no experience in the airline industry or in turnaround situations of this size but he does have a huge reputation in the financial community," said Schwendimann. "So we just have to give him some time to see whether he can turn things around at the SAirGroup."

by Tom O'Brien


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