Italians jump airport queue

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FOR YEARS, Milan's travellers have faced no more than a 15-minute taxi drive from the city centre to the cramped but convenient local airport, Linate. On 25 October, that will all change when most airlines are shunted to a brand new hub built 53 kilometres (33 miles) or an hour's journey away.

One important category of travellers will be spared the extra journey, though - those travelling to Rome, most of whom just happen to be customers of the national carrier, Alitalia. Nine other European airlines have cried foul and the row has embroiled the Italian premier, Romano Prodi, and the European Transport Commissioner, Neil Kinnock.

With the issue still deadlocked the European Commission warned yesterday that Italy has a week to negotiate a settlement or face a formal declaration that it is breaking European Union law. One source said it could mean "chaos" at Linate on 25 October, with foreign airlines refusing to move.

Behind the bust-up lie the cut-throat economics of the European airline business. Air travel has expanded and Linate, with its single runway, last year handled more than 14 million passengers, making the case for a new, northern Italian hub unanswerable.

For the new airport at Malpensa to become viable, the airport - built with European aid - needs traffic, hence the Italians' desire to shift airlines to it. But the promised Malpensa Express rail link has yet to begin service and work on widening the main road artery is also behind schedule.

Moreover, the Italian government's rules on who can stay at Linate have caused consternation by favouring only carriers on the most popular route, that with 2 million passengers a year. In practice, it means that flights only to Rome's Fiumincino are guaranteed a place, giving Alitalia, which dominates the route, the advantageof being able to feed its hub in Rome from Linate.

Rival airlines, including British Airways, Sabena, Lufthansa, Air France and SAS say they stand to lose out. Many of Milan's well-heeled business travellers take a short flight from Linate to connect to intercontinental flights from other European airports.

In the aviation industry, yesterday's Commission verdict, expected to rule against the Italian authorities, was as eagerly awaited as some of Linate's fog-bound arrivals. In the event, Mr Kinnock said that although the Commission had decided Italy was acting against European law, formal adoption of this decision would be delayed for a week.