BA takes on French over fresh Orly limits: Airline challenges restrictions on size and number of aircraft

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BRITISH Airways said yesterday it would challenge French government restrictions on flights by UK airlines between Heathrow and Paris's Orly airport, following the announcement that the route would be opened on 13 June.

Bernard Bosson, the Transport Minister, said flights would be allowed but that each airline would be restricted to four a day. He also said that a minimum size of aircraft would be allowed, and that British Airways and its French affiliate, TAT, would be counted as 'one single airline'.

A British Airways spokesman said the airline welcomed the decision but was 'extremely concerned at the restrictions that have been imposed. We should be free to set the number of flights and we will be challenging the conditions with the appropriate authorities'. It is thought that these would include the European Commission and the French courts.

John MacGregor, the Secretary of State for Transport, also welcomed Mr Bosson's words as 'a good start' but said he would 'be examining closely any conditions for the future and working closely with the EC to get discriminatory constraints removed'.

BA and Air UK announced earlier this month that they would fly into Orly on 16 May despite a French refusal to give them landing rights. BA scheduled six flights from Heathrow for itself and TAT, a regional airline in which it has a 49 per cent stake, while Air UK planned five flights to and from Stansted. The row, defused by negotiations between London and Paris at the last minute, centred on a European Commission decision in April ordering France to let other airlines use Orly. Air France was given permission to fly to Heathrow from Orly last October but has not yet taken up the option.

Mr Bosson's announcement came after talks over the weekend with Mr MacGregor, but the exact terms of his statement took the

British by surprise. Mr MacGregor is believed to have told Mr Bosson that the UK believed that under the terms of the EC's third aviation package, it was illegal to impose any conditions that discriminated in favour of any airline.

Apart from the limitations on the number of flights, the French authorities insisted that no airline could operate flights with aircraft with less than a 200-seat capacity from the summer of 1995. This would be particularly harmful for Air UK, which operates smaller Fokkers into Paris. British Airways operates wide-bodied Boeing 767s between Heathrow and Paris Charles de Gaulle airport and smaller Boeing 737s from Gatwick.

A Department of Transport spokesman said this condition was discriminatory because it applied only to flights between London and Orly. 'The French can say they have a major environmental problem at Orly to justify this, but they would then have to apply the restriction to internal flights as well,' he said.

The spokesman said BA had three main concerns: the limit on the number of flights; the conditions on aircraft size; and the suggestion that British Airways and TAT should be considered as one airline. Many TAT planes have been painted in BA livery and TAT uses BA flight numbers on international routes.

One advantage of Orly is that it allows direct access to the domestic network of Air Inter, a subsidiary of Air France - TAT has won permission to operate Orly-Marseilles and Orly-Toulouse flights, challenging Air Inter's monopoly. Being south of Paris, the airport also serves the part of the Paris basin the furthest from the Channel tunnel rail terminus at the Gare du Nord. Inhabitants of that part of the basin are expected to prefer flying to taking the train when travelling to Britain if they can use Orly.