EasyJet poised for EU protest

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THE NO-FRILLS airline easyJet is poised to lodge a complaint with the European Commission over the way airports charge airlines to use their facilities.

Most airports charge airlines per passenger, which easyJet says discriminates against the newer scheduled carriers. The Luton-based airline wants European Union regulators to introduce a system similar to that in the US, whereby airlines rent gates, or space, from the airports instead of paying for each passenger.

"I believe the system by which most airports in Europe charge airlines is rigged in favour of chartered airlines," said Stelios Haji-Ioannou, easyJet chairman. "The system is so incestuous. Charter airlines have been around for a long time and know the airport bosses very well.

"Unless something dramatic happens to change the basis for airlines, I am going to complain. It will be the next great battle for airline liberalisation."

EasyJet officials have already held informal talks with the Commission over the issue, Mr Haji-Ioannou said. The complaint to Brussels stems from easyJet's difficult relations with the owners of Luton Airport, the US-based Airport Group International. In early 1997, easyJet told Luton Airport - at the time owned by the local authority - that the airport needed to expand and offered to buy it. That offer was declined. Luton Borough Council eventually awarded the contract to run the airport for 30 years and build a new terminal to AGI, a privately held company.

According to easyJet, the new pounds 170m terminal is "a Taj Mahal", unsuitable for the needs of its biggest customer - easyJet accounts for more than half the passengers who pass through Luton airport every year. Over the past few months, easyJet has been increasing its presence in two other airports, Liverpool and Geneva, in an attempt to decrease its dependence on Luton.

"It's a question of do you build an airport for Monarch and Britannia or do you build for easyJet,'' said Haji-Ioannou, referring to two charter airlines that currently fly out of Luton.

Frank Pullman, chief executive of Luton Airport, said: "I'm somewhat baffled. We had a very constructive meeting with easyJet on Friday and there was no mention of any of this."