BA may take legal action in runway row

BRITISH Airways revealed last night it may consider legal action if the Government announces plans to expand Stansted Airport rather than Heathrow.The development was immediately welcomed by anti-expansion protesters in Essex, who claimed BA's stance would add weight to their campaign against new runways at Stansted.

By Sharon Asplin

BRITISH Airways revealed last night it may consider legal action if the Government announces plans to expand Stansted Airport rather than Heathrow.

The development was immediately welcomed by anti-expansion protesters in Essex, who claimed BA's stance would add weight to their campaign against new runways at Stansted.

Transport Secretary Alistair Darling is expected to publish a White Paper next month outlining where in the South East up to three new runways could be built to relieve congestion at existing facilities.

The options under consideration include building a third short runway at Heathrow, a second one at Gatwick or up to three more at Stansted – with Stansted thought by many to be the most likely choice.

But BA said yesterday if the Government did announce the new runway would be built at Stansted it would look at all its options to try to get it to change its mind.

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It added that while it was not currently threatening legal action, it would also not rule it out.

The group is worried that paying for expansion at Stansted would require cross-subsidy from Heathrow through increased charges.

A spokesman said: "Legal action would be a last resort but at this stage nothing is ruled in and nothing is ruled out."

Yesterday Peter Gowan, deputy chairman of the Stop Stansted Expansion Campaign, said: "We welcome the fact that BA have recognised that every airport must rely on its own income rather than cross-subsidies.

"I think this must add weight to our campaign to persuade the Government that expansion at Stansted is not viable."

BA has called for the Government to build a third, short runway at Heathrow followed by another at Gatwick.

It says such a move would generate £65 billion of benefits with just two new runways. Building three or four runways in one location at the likes of Stansted would cost more, have greater financial risk and provide fewer economic benefits, it claims.

Last week, the EADT reported there were fears that Stansted was being promoted as the ideal choice for expansion by the Government and BAA – a fact vehemently denied by the airport operator.

Former Shadow Transport Secretary and North Essex MP Bernard Jenkin said he was worried government machinery was encouraging the runway to be built at Stansted, by using pollution problems at Heathrow as an excuse.

But Conservative MP Sir Alan Haselhurst, whose Saffron Walden constituency includes the airport, said he had received assurances from the Government that no decision had yet been made. He believes it is "pie in the sky" to think an extra runway at Stansted would work.

However, the Department of Transport has conceded that unless the Government was confident pollution could be contained consistently within EU limits a third runway could not be built at Heathrow.

Meanwhile BA is expected today to announce a massive drop in pre-tax profits for the three months to the end of September, traditionally its strongest period of the year.

Fund manager Gerrard expects the airline to announce pre-tax profits of just £49 million, down from £245 million during 2002, although other forecasts put the figure at £72 million.

The group, which has already borne the brunt of the Iraq war and the Sars crisis, is expected to say profits during the quarter were hit by higher fuel costs and backdated pay for support staff.

BA bosses have already warned that unofficial strike action by ground staff at Heathrow during the summer cost the company between £30 million and £40 million.

Earlier this month BA said passenger numbers had remained stable during October, although revenue increased slightly, rising by 3.9%.

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