The three most important words in this morning’s stellar Qantas half yearly financials mightn’t be “profits up 73%” on a before tax basis but “alternative ownership options.”

Like Virgin Blue yesterday, Qantas is looking hard for new and richer ways for its business to be valued, including “relationships with very good overseas carriers … if there is a benefit to our shareholders,” according to its chief executive officer Geoff Dixon a few hours ago.

Dixon said: “We continue to look around. With our balance sheet we could do things not available to others.”

The hottest gossip of the moment is in fact the Air France/KLM group, which Dixon has often held up as the best example of how trans-border rationalisations can work. And Air France (which is the dominant partner) is also being mentioned in certain circles as a desired investor in Virgin Blue as majority shareholder Toll Holdings puts its 62% stake in the hands of a bid panel.

The French/Dutch entity, which is two sovereign carriers owned by one set of shareholders is courting China Southern. But there is more than the AF/KLM combo exciting Toll and Qantas. Lufthansa, with whom Qantas has good management relationships, recently plunged into the US market with a minority stake in JetBlue.

Qantas isn’t looking to sell out to foreign carriers, which is impossible under the Qantas Sale Act, but to find ways to joint venture activities which will boost earnings and its share price.

Just as Virgin Blue is understood to be considering joint venturing a low cost domestic brand with Malaysia based AirAsia, in which Virgin Blue minority shareholder Richard Branson has taken a 20% stake in its AirAsiaX long haul division.

Despite a long tradition of mutual insults, Qantas and Singapore Airlines (and its major shareholder the Singapore Government investment arm Temasek Holdings) have occasionally discussed areas of potential mutual interest including low cost airline ventures in Asia and an Air France/KLM type of structure for the two carriers.

In the past two days both Qantas and Virgin Blue have dropped on the record hints about possible deals with such other carriers as well as their strong interest in spinning off part owned subsidiaries for their loyalty programs, plus freight and possibly fleet entities in the case of Qantas.

Dixon this morning said: “… we will position these and eventually other portfolio businesses for greater growth outside their traditional areas, and to provide alternative ownership options.”

The Qantas figures are way up on forecasts. It made a record PBT of $905 million for the half year, for a net $618 million, and saw the Jetstar contribution to earnings quadruple to $113 million in the same period.

This put Jetstar on level pegging with Virgin Blue’s net profit of $113.3 million in the same period reported yesterday, but there is more to the comparison than the headline figures suggest.

Dixon said: “Virgin Blue is clearly doing well. But on their figures we expect to equal or better their cost base on domestic by early 2009, averaged across Qantas domestic, Qantaslink and Jetstar domestic.”

Peter Fray

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