Budget airlines demand vacant 'slots' go to them

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The Independent Online

Low-budget airlines demanded the right yesterday to take over £1bn worth of airport "slots" abandoned by flagship carriers as British Airways announced fresh cutbacks to its services.

No-frills outfits, such as Ryanair, are urging the European Commission to apply the "use it or lose it" rule so that carriers who do not take advantage of slots at least 80 per cent of the time have to forfeit them.

The news came as BA revealed it was to cut more than 80 European, short-haul and regional flights a week. The announcement comes after the airline's decision last week to drop 190 other services, many of them transatlantic and other intercontinental flights.

Smaller carriers argue that if the commission waived the "use it or lose it" regulation for flagship airlines struggling in the aftermath of the atrocities in America, they would be guilty of providing unlawful state subsidies. The commission is expected to make a decision in the issue in nine days' time.

Michael O'Leary, the chief executive of Ryanair, told BBC Radio 4's World at One that it was "nonsense" that the EU was declaring there would be no state aid to airlines, but on the other hand saying it would waive the normal rules. He said: "It's back-handed protection of monopoly high-fare carriers like BA that is outdated and shouldn't be allowed. If BA can't fly these services from Gatwick, others should be allowed to do so."

It is understood that Go, a former subsidiary of BA, is also interested in bidding for abandoned slots.

A spokesman at BA said management was hoping some of its associated companies might take over flights it had given up. GB Airways, which holds a BA franchise, was taking over the Gatwick-Montpellier service, the spokesman said. Executives at British Airways were hoping to keep the slots within the BA "network", he said.

Confirming reports from other low-budget airlines, easyJet said yesterday that demand for its flights had remained buoyant despite the events of 11 September. The budget operator flew 680,383 passengers during September ­ 150,000 higher than a year earlier and only slightly down on the previous month.

However, BA announced it was to axe further services and cut 200 jobs as it combined its two UK regional subsidiaries. British Airways Regional is to become part of the newly-formed British Airways CitiExpress, creating a single business for its short-haul, regional, domestic and European network. Jobs will go over the next few months, mainly among management and support staff.

Ministers came under fresh pressure to bale out Britain's big airlines after the Irish government declared its readiness to save Aer Lingus.

The Irish Prime Minster, Bertie Ahern, said plans would be drawn up to help the republic's national airline, despite any "difficulties" under European law.

Bill Morris, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, welcomed Mr Ahern's comments. "In the current situation no government can stand idly by if they value the social and economic contribution of air travel and the aviation industries," he said.

British ministers have so far stuck to the letter of EU legislation ­ although it is not clear that countries on the Continent will do so.

Mr Ahern said plans to help Aer Lingus, which has lost 80 per cent of its transatlantic traffic, would be drawn up in consultation with the airline's board and unions.

Noel Dowling, of the Irish general workers' union Siptu, said it was "inevitable" that there would be a U-turn on the European policy. "The EU might be beginning to accept the fact that if they don't put aid into airlines in Europe, particularly in the transatlantic areas, whenever there's a pick-up in the aviation industry the only airlines left flying will be the American airlines," he said.

"The Americans can put billions into their airlines but Europe has to sit back and watch its airlines disappear."

Air Canada announced yesterday that it was temporarily suspending flights from Glasgow and Manchester to Toronto. The company said the "cost-cutting measure" was taken in light of the economic slowdown in North America and Europe.