COLIN BAKER LONDON British Midland (BM) has raised the stakes in its quest for transatlantic services from London Heathrow with a $1.2 billion order for four long-haul Airbus A330s.

The order is despite the failure of the US and UK governments to reach an open skies "mini-deal" earlier this year, which BM hoped would make it the third UK carrier to serve the USA from Heathrow.

BM chairman Sir Michael Bishop insists the airline is "not taking a gamble" by ordering the aircraft before a mini-deal is reached. Some analysts are sceptical, however. One comments: "His approach appears bizarre. He's normally a shrewd operator, but on this occasion, I'm not sure what he's doing." He adds: "Airbus would probably let him slide a bit, but they would not give him back his down payment."

Bishop is keeping his cards close to his chest, but complains that "it would be unreasonable" for BM to be the only carrier serving the USA from Manchester, but not Heathrow. He insists, however, that "we are launching new services next year", leaving open the possibility of using the new aircraft to serve the USA from a UK airport other than Heathrow, or even to use them on long-haul routes to destinations other than the USA.

With the new Airbus aircraft set for delivery from April next year and BM hoping to launch its Heathrow-USA services from mid-2001, the carrier will hope for a swift resumption to the mini-deal negotiations, which broke down in January.

This appears to be a forlorn hope for the time being, however. The UK's Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions says that there is no date set for a resumption in negotiations, although lines of communication are still open, with US President Bill Clinton and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair exchanging letters on the subject.

Bishop believes, however, that the two sides were close to reaching a deal last time round. He says: "There remains no credible reason why the governments should not return to this proposal or something similar."

In a separate move, BM is axeing its services from Heathrow to Frankfurt, Prague and Warsaw and replacing them with routes to Madrid, Milan Malpensa and Rome Fiumicino. The carrier failed in its bid to get a second daily frequency to Prague when the authorities awarded the slot to British Airways low-cost operation Go. In Warsaw, the government put a floor on low-cost fares, hitting BM. In Frankfurt, Bishop says, the route is adequately served by Star Alliance partner Lufthansa.

Source: Airline Business