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Van Miert rejects airlines' criticism of competition policy

The European Commission's senior competition official hit back at European airline bosses yesterday, rejecting their criticism of Commission competition policy and accusing them of not being interested in true liberalisation, particularly on the most lucrative routes.

Karel van Miert, the EU competition commissioner, said it was ironic that while airlines objected to being investigated on individual routes rather than entire networks, they spent their time complaining about each others' anti-competitive activities on individual routes.

Mr Van Miert refused to be drawn on reports that British Airways had offered to phase in its controversial proposed alliance with American Airlines over several years. In return the Commission would not demand that the companies surrender take-off and landing slots and Heathrow airport all at once, but rather over a phased period.

"I am not in a position to answer, we are in the midst of discussions. Things are moving at last but we are not there yet," he said. While Brussels cannot block the alliance it can impose tough conditions and the key demand up to now has been that the companies give up over 350 Heathrow slots

There was speculation in Brussels that his remarks showed that even if the deal is approved next month, Mr Van Miert will not back away from ruthless investigations of strategic alliances by looking at their effects on every individual route.

Mr Van Miert also said British Airways had indicated it was prepared to take steps to avert a clash with Brussels following a string of damaging complaints about its marketing tactics.

He confirmed he had received a formal complaint in "fairly powerful language" from British Midland. The complaint is about so-called "override commissions" paid to travel agents, which BA claims are standard practice in the industry. The complaint mirrors a case lodged by Virgin against BA, which is already under investigation in Brussels.