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British Airways, flying in the face of French pride

As the French Transport Ministry prepares to take the European Commission to court over its order to open up France's domestic air routes, the main beneficiary of the EC's ruling continues to rub salt into the wound.

Three of 11 flights out of Paris's Charles de Gaulle airport to Copenhagen yesterday carried more than just British Airways flight numbers. The Dutch-built, French- registered Fokker-100s were painted in British Airways livery. All other flights between the French and Danish capitals were operated by Air France or SAS.

Another three flights left for Munich in blue and grey with the Union Flag on the tail. From Nice, BA-liveried planes took off for Rome and Brussels. This is how BA operates via a 49 per cent-owned French associate. BA colours have become commonplace at French airports since Air France gave up its stake in TAT, an independent French regional airline, in July 1991.

For, as Air France sold, British Airways bought a 49.9 per cent stake in TAT.

The EC ordered Air France to sell its TAT holding as a condition for the national carrier's takeover of UTA, a private carrier operating mainly to Africa and former French colonies. 'The arrangement (to sell the TAT holding) was designed to protect a small French airline against big, fat Air France. That small French airline is now called British Airways,' said an Air France official yesterday.

That deal also gave Air France control of Air Inter, the main French domestic airline.

On Wednesday, the European Commission ordered France to allow TAT - aka British Airways - to fly the new Paris Orly- Heathrow route. Orly is being re- opened to London traffic for the first time since the mid-1970s as the Channel tunnel, to be inaugurated next Friday, starts operating direct rail services.

At the same time, TAT will be allowed to operate Orly-Marseilles and Orly-Toulouse routes in competition with Air Inter, in effect opening up important domestic routes to British Airways.

Air Inter's chief executive, Michel Bernard, said that the subsidiary will also appeal against the Commission's ruling that France must open up key domestic routes.