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British Midland profit soars 24% to £4.4m

British Midland, Britain's second-biggest airline, saw a 24 per cent rise in profits last year due to a surge in traffic on its London to Paris route.

However, competition from the Channel tunnel was a real threat that would hold back passenger growth on Europe's busiest airline route, said Sir Michael Bishop, chairman.

With the Channel tunnel not expected to reach full capacity until the summer, the real battle between the airlines and Eurotunnel has yet to begin.

Sir Michael plans to counter the extra competition by launching services to two new European destinations this year, though he is not saying where until later in the year.

However, airlines' expansion strategy is to push into areas beyond the reach of Eurostar, and that probably means Midland will fly middle-to- Eastern Europe.

Sir Michael said: "Airlines should not expect to see another rise in London-Paris traffic. We will be on a plateau for a couple of years until the market absorbs the extra traffic."

The company made pre-tax profits of £4.4m in 1994, against £1.1m, and Sir Michael predicted further growth in profitability this year. An 11 per cent increase in total revenues produced a rise in the airline's turnover from £371.1m to £404.5m.

Midland's increase in revenue is well ahead of most other European airlines, which Sir Michael said was due to several code-sharing agreements the company signed last year.

Passenger capacity increased only 2 per cent, leading to an improved load factor of 61.4 per cent, against 56.3 per cent.

Midland, 40 per cent-owned by the Scandinavian airline SAS, saw passenger growth on international and domestic routes, with services to Belfast and Frankfurt growing strongly.

Total passengers on cross-border routes rose 22.7 per cent, which meant that for the first time international routes were responsible for more than half of all revenue - up from 50 to 56 per cent.

On the domestic front, passenger numbers on routes from Heathrow to Leeds- Bradford and Teesside increased 8 per cent, reflecting the summer rail disruption.

Midland has had talks with Eurostar, which operates the London-Paris Channel tunnel service, about cross-ticketing to enable passengers to be flexible about using a plane or train.

Sir Michael said he was keen to go ahead with the idea but Eurostar had made no decision.

Airline subsidies would remain an issue, and Sir Michael said he would oppose plans to approve £700m in aid for Spain's Iberia.

Midland is one of several private sector airlines taking legal action against EC approval for subsidies to Air France.