BA to start flights from Continent to New York

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The Independent Online

British Airways launched a service between America and continental Europe yesterday, becoming the first national carrier in either region to unveil plans to operate routes that neither take off nor land in its home market.

The new airline, OpenSkies, is the most ambitious move unveiled yet by carriers before the implementation of the "Open Skies" agreement that will open up transatlantic routes to full competition from April. The announcement was thin on details, however, and was made even though touchy talks with its pilots about the structure of the venture remain unresolved.

The service, to be headed by Dale Moss, former boss of worldwide sales, will operate as a separate entity, and has begun a hiring drive for pilots.

Lobbying through the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), BA pilots have expressed concern that the new pilots could be employed on less attractive terms than their colleagues flying in the mainline operation, and want all of them to be directly employed by the mother company. Sources within BA who have been negotiating with the pilots were said to be "furious" about the announcement yesterday.

Jim McAuslan of Balpa said: "We have issues with BA on how the new service should be structured ... The new subsidiary can only fly successfully with the full support of BA's pilot force."

The two sides are due to meet on Monday to try to reach an agreement.

The service will start small, with one 757 flying between New York and either Brussels or Paris, starting in June. BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, said he hoped to ramp the fleet up to six by the end of the next year. The company is still unsure whether it will use Newark New Jersey or New York's JFK. At the latter airport, US authorities could cut the number of flights amid rising delays and a creaking infrastructure.

"For a commercial airline they plan to launch in just five short months, they seem to have left a lot of key details unresolved," said Douglas McNeill, an analyst at Blue Oar Securities. "One of Willie Walsh's greatest achievements has been to improve labour relations. It seems crazy to risk that over this initiative."

Ahead of the Open Skies agreement coming into effect, American rivals such as Continental and Delta have revealed plans to begin London services. United and American Airlines, the only US carriers currently allowed to operate from Heathrow, have said that they will begin flying to new destinations in America. Air France has teamed with Delta for a New York-London service. BA's move ups the stakes in what is likely to be cut-throat competition between the carriers.

Mr Walsh said yesterday: "By naming the airline OpenSkies, we're celebrating the first major step in 60 years towards a liberalised US/EU aviation market, which means we can fly between any US and EU destination."

London Eye sponsorship deal to fizzle out

British Airways is to stop sponsoring the London Eye from next month, eight years after starting its association with the attraction. The giant wheel has attracted more than 27 million visitors since it was launched on Millennium Eve, and recently has been the centrepiece for New Year's Eve celebrations, above. BA's chief executive, Willie Walsh, said that the airline's agreement to sponsor the attraction had come to a natural end. "It has been a very good attraction for us but we felt it was time to move on."