Terror fears hit BA passenger numbers

British Airways warned yesterday that security fears involving some of its transatlantic flights were beginning to affect forward bookings.

The warning came as the airline reported a slight fall in the proportion of seats filled on each flight in January and struck a more cautious tone on market conditions. BA shares dipped 1.4 per cent to close 4p lower at 287.5p.

BA's chief executive, Rod Eddington, was forced to cancel flights from London to Washington and Miami last weekend after US intelligence warned that al-Qa'ida was attempting to target those particular routes. Among the services cancelled was BA223 from Heathrow to Washington, which has been grounded or severely delayed on several occasions on the advice of security officials.

Passenger traffic increased by 3.5 per cent last month, with Africa and the Middle East showing the strongest gains followed by the Asia Pacific region.

BA said that while passenger numbers in long-haul premium remained higher than a year ago, short-haul premium traffic remained weak and fares were having to be cut to attract economy passengers.

Across the BA network as a whole, premium traffic was up 1.1 per cent while economy passenger numbers increased 3.9 per cent.

Meanwhile BA's low-cost rival Ryanair kept up its attack on Tuesday's European Commission ruling ordering it to repay £2m in illegal subsidies received from the public- owned Charleroi airport in Belgium. Ryanair reiterated that it would challenge the ruling in court but said it would take several weeks before it could quantify the impact on its costs at the airport.

Michael O'Leary, Ryanair's chief executive, highlighted the fact that the EU ruling had received the support of trade associations representing high-cost airports and airlines, and noted that the Transport Commissioner, Loyola de Palacio, had confirmed it would mean higher air fares. "If the Commission was so concerned about a level playing field, they should have asked the complaining airlines to move to Charleroi and benefit from the low costs available at Belgium's low-cost airport," he said.