Norwegian shipping magnate John Fredriksen, TUI's biggest shareholder, kicked off hostilities at the packed meeting in the northern German city of Hanover with a shot across the bows of the blue chip firm's management.
Through his spokesman Tor Olav Troim, Fredriksen attacked the recent decision by TUI management to split its Hapag-Lloyd shipping activities into a separate entity and to explore either a spin-off, a sale or a merger.
TUI chief executive Michael Frenzel told the annual general meeting that TUI aimed to reach a deal on Hapag-Lloyd "swiftly," with the preferred method being a sale to an investor.
According to reports, TUI has been in talks to sell Hapag-Lloyd to Singapore's Neptune Orient Lines, which may offer as much as €6 billion to €7 billion ($9 billion to $11 billion) for the world's fifth biggest shipping line. But Troim said TUI should first focus on developing Hapag-Lloyd's business and then merge with another shipping line.
Roundly applauded by shareholders, he also said that by deciding to grant Russian billionaire Alexei Mordashov a seat on the supervisory board the management had violated the rights of shareholders.
Mordashov - who in recent months has built up a 10-percent stake in TUI against 11.7 percent for Fredriksen - sees things differently and is viewed as an ally of Frenzel, supporting the decision to seek a swift sale of Hapag-Lloyd. His background is in tourism and he has said he wants to launch a joint venture with TUI on the fast-growing Russian tourism market.
Mordashov was not at the meeting but he was represented by Vladimir Yakushev, managing partner of shareholder Alexei Mordashov's S-Group Capital Management, who did not address the meeting.
Troim also called for Jürgen Krumnow, the head of the supervisory board - the body which in Germany appoints the chief executive - to be sacked, and called for Fredriksen's investment company Monteray to be given two seats on the board. He later softened his demand and called for Fredriksen, who was absent from the shareholders' meeting, to be given one seat.
It also emerged that Fredriksen has offered to buy Mordashov's stake for €19 per share, above the recent trading price of around €18.60.
Earlier Wednesday, TUI said it had slashed an operating loss during the first quarter with a strong performance from its shipping operations. It said its pre-tax loss had narrowed during the first three months of 2008 to €196 million from €248 million a year earlier.
TUI's traditionally weak first-quarter sales rose 24 percent to €5.1 billion from €4.1 billion, thanks in large part to the merger of its tourism unit last year with the British operator First Choice.
TUI said in March it aimed to increase sales and profits this year. It is to publish detailed results, including its net profit, May 15.