EasyJet furious at rise in Gatwick charges

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Relations between BAA and the airlines have reached a new low after easyJet accused the embattled airport operator of "shamelessly gaming the system" over its proposals to increase security charges at Gatwick airport by 143 per cent.

Late last year, BAA won approval from the Civil Aviation Authority to hike operational expenditures by 17 per cent at the capital's second airport. The single biggest part of that hike will come via an increase in annual security costs from £34.1m to £82.9m, which the company says is necessary to hire more security personnel and to eliminate the rule that allows each passenger to have just one carry-on bag.

EasyJet, which operates more services out of Gatwick than any other airline, said the hikes were "cynically rammed through" by BAA after two years of talks between it and the airlines to establish the spending regime at the airport for the next five years.

Andy Harrison, chief executive of easyJet, said: "They increased charges when they introduced the one bag rule, and now they are increasing it again to get rid of it. It's bizarre."

As a regulated entity, the returns BAA is allowed to make are a direct function of what it invests in its airports, and are set by the CAA. Late last year, the regulator proposed a reduction of allowed returns at Heathrow and Gatwick, a ruling against which BAA has fiercely objected.

Mr Harrison said the increased security charge was an attempt to improve the company's profits for its heavily indebted Spanish owner, Ferrovial. "They are using this as an opportunity to push through higher fees," he said.

The airlines warn that the increased fees – which total a hike of £267m annually – will be paid in large part by passengers. The new regime comes until effect from 1 April.

Ferrovial saw its debt load balloon after it bought BAA for £16.4bn in 2006 – its €32.9bn debt now represents about six times its total market value, and speculation is swirling that it may be forced to sell one of its airports to pay its bills.

A BAA spokeswoman said: "The price increases we have applied for at Heathrow and Gatwick reflect the millions of pounds that have been spent on increasing our security areas and investing in new technology."