American Airlines is holding "preliminary" discussions with Pan Am Corp. about the possibility of buying Pan Am's profitable Northeast shuttle, it was learned Wednesday.
The shuttle, which serves New York, Boston and Washington, was put on the market by cash-hungry Pan Am last week. The airline company said then that it needed the money to continue its major operation, Pan American World Airways.
The Pan Am Shuttle was put on the block just two weeks after New York financier Donald J. Trump said he would sell the Trump Shuttle, which serves the same three cities, if he could get the right price. He said he thought it was worth about $600 million. Helane Becker, airline analyst with the Shearson Lehman Hutton investment firm, puts the value of the Pan Am Shuttle at $350 million to $400 million.
When Trump bought his shuttle from bankrupt Eastern Airlines last year for $365 million, the transaction included 21 jets.
However, a Pan Am Shuttle sale would not include airliners because those used on the routes are leased by Pan Am. Only gates and landing rights at the Boston, New York and Washington airports are included.
An observer of Pan Am, who requested anonymity, said: "American has asked to review the books, and there have been a number of discussions. They are very preliminary." The source said the approach by American came after Pan Am said last Friday that it had engaged the New York-based investment banking firm Kidder, Peabody & Co. to assist in the sale of the shuttle.
S. Lane Genatowski, a senior vice president at Kidder Peabody, said in an interview Wednesday that all parties in such discussions sign confidentially agreements so he could not comment specifically.
He said, however, that a number of carriers had expressed interest to Pan Am in the past few months about buying the shuttle. Kidder Peabody has gone back to them since Pan Am's announcement last week to determine whether they were still interested; others have come forward since the announcement. Genatowski said the interested parties included airlines, individuals and investment fund managers.
American Airlines spokeswoman Mary O'Neal, while not commenting specifically on the reports, said, "We are an asset-hungry company, and we look at everything that comes on the market."
Airline analysts say it is certain that other carriers are interested in both shuttle operations.
"I think that almost anyone who can raise the financing is interested," said Edward Starkman, airline analyst with Paine Webber Inc. "The shuttles are highly lucrative, and there would be a lot of spillover into . . . other operations.
Some observers contend that American is really not interested in operating the shuttle but that it wants the landing slots and gates so that it can use them for its other routes. At Washington National and New York's LaGuardia Airport, slots are prized because they are rationed among the airlines.
But Ray Neidl, airline analyst with the Dillon, Read & Co. investment firm, said American might face antitrust action by the government if it bought the shuttle operation and then, in effect, shut it down.