British Midland hopes to start up its London Heathrow-Moscow route before the beginning of its summer schedule, despite Virgin Atlantic Airways' appeal against the UK Civil Aviation Authority's decision to award the route to British Midland.

A British Midland spokesman says that until the appeal is heard in February, it cannot allocate an aircraft, although in its submission to the CAA hearing it said it would use an A321 on the route.

British Midland will be competing on a route, operated at present by Aeroflot and British Airways and with competition limited to a three times weekly service out of Gatwick, operated by Transaero, Russia's second largest carrier.

In 1997, 271 000 passengers flew on scheduled services out of Heathrow to Moscow, down 1% on 1996, according to British Midland.

Although passenger growth is only moderate, with its four flights per week mandate, British Midland will be tapping into what is both a prestige and revenue rich route.

"Pretty much all" passengers are "either premium cabin or top paying economy class", says the spokesman, adding: "The aim is to take customers away from British Airways and Aeroflot rather than rely on growth."

Virgin's decision to appeal is based around offering a different product for passengers. "We don't just believe we will offer a better service, we know we will," says a Virgin spokesman.

But the CAA says it overturned its original decision on the grounds that British Midland could provide a later time slot leaving Heathrow, allowing more passengers to connect from ports elsewhere in the UK.

The CAA also says British Midland has experience in starting up services to eastern Europe with routes to Warsaw and Prague already flying and with a service to Budapest due to start in the spring.

Source: Airline Business