British Midland to fly London-Manchester

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The Independent Online
British Midland, the country's second biggest scheduled airline, is set to break British Airways' monopoly on the London-Manchester route by launching a rival service next year. As Michael Harrison reports, the arrival of a second carrier also poses a threat to Richard Branson's Virgin Trains.

Heathrow-Manchester is the biggest monopoly air route in Europe and also has some of the highest air fares per mile. British Midland is expected to announce on Monday that it will start flying the route next March in a move which is likely to bring fares down, particularly for business passengers.

Just under 1 million passengers a year fly between Heathrow and Manchester making it the fourth-biggest domestic route after Edinburgh, Glasgow and Belfast.

BA currently operates 12 services a day with fares ranging from pounds 160 to pounds 198. British Midland would not comment on its plans but it will have to launch a competitive number of daily flights in order to attract passengers from BA.

Virgin Trains, which took over the West Coast Main Line earlier this year, will also be watching the development closely since London-Manchester is one of its key markets. So will Railtrack, which is investing pounds 2.1bn to modernise the route.

Virgin is preparing to place a pounds 1bn order for 55 high-speed tilting trains for the line. The trains, due to enter service in 2002, will travel at 140 mph, cutting the journey time between London and Manchester to just two hours.

British Midland now flies to 18 European and UK routes including Paris, Dublin, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Profits this year will exceed the pounds 7.2m recorded in 1996 by a significant margin.

Aviation analysts believe its long-term strategy in starting up a Manchester service is to cement further links with the German carrier Lufthansa. British Midland already operates the Heathrow-Cologne service on behalf of Lufthansa and could take over Lufthansa's four services from Manchester to Germany once it is has an established base at the airport. The four Manchester routes flown by Lufthansa are to Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Munich and Hamburg.

The Scandinavian airline SAS, which owns 40 per cent of British Midland and is a partner of Lufthansa in the Star Alliance, also operates several services into Manchester.

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