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    Qantas, Air NZ rumours take flight
    By Stephen Dabkowski, Tony Parkinson
    May 31 2002

    Qantas has moved a step closer to grabbing a stake in Air New Zealand by reconvening talks to buy a minority stake - believed to be 25 per cent - in the airline.

    Qantas was yesterday forced into issuing a statement to the stock exchange on its intentions following media speculation that the two airlines were in intense talks over the future of Air NZ.

    Qantas chief executive officer Geoff Dixon confirmed "that Qantas is involved in discussions with Air NZ on a wide range of business issues, including a minority Qantas shareholding in Air New Zealand". Air NZ chairman John Palmer told the New Zealand Stock Exchange that his company was involved "in discussions with Qantas covering a wide range of business issues, including a Qantas shareholding in Air New Zealand".

    While discussions between the two airlines began as early as last May, it is believed they have only just reignited. The latest public furore on the issue was generated by an article in New Zealand's Dominion newspaper that suggested Qantas was not only seeking a major stake in Air NZ, but also management control.

    Qantas yesterday denied ever seeking management control.

    However, speculation on a future tie-up between the two airlines did little for their share prices. Qantas shares gained two cents to $4.60 yesterday while Air NZ rose one cent to 69 NZ cents.

    As yet, the NZ Government appears to be keeping its options open since bailing the airline out of trouble last year.

    During an interview in Melbourne, NZ Prime Minister Helen Clark refused to speculate on the future of the national flag-carrier.

    "I never comment on Air New Zealand," she told The Age. "Any comment is ill-advised."

    Despite Dr Clark's government providing an $850 million rescue package for Air NZ during the Ansett debacle, the airline continued to report losses in the December half.

    A spokeswoman for NZ Finance Minister Michael Cullen said the government - the airline's majority shareholder since late last year - was interested in selling a cornerstone shareholding to a company with aviation expertise.

    Mr Cullen has also said the government would keep a majority holding.

    She said Qantas had always been upfront about wanting control of Air NZ.

    "The procedure would be that whoever was interested would negotiate with the Air New Zealand board and the board would come to the government with a proposal," the spokeswoman said. "There is no proposal before the government at this stage."

    The unsourced Dominion report said Air NZ and Qantas had hired merchant banks to work on the deal, which would inject hundreds of millions of dollars into Air NZ.

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