Heathrow and UK Flights 'Under Threat From Open Skies'

A leading campaigner for airport expansion in the UK has warned that regional flights from Heathrow face the axe if controls on airlines flying between Britain and the US are lifted.

Lord Soley, the former Labour MP and campaign director for Future Heathrow, also claimed that a so-called 'Open Skies' accord would put the airport at risk of losing its status as one of Europe's premier hubs.

His warning follows recent discussions between the US and the European Union on creating a fully liberalised transatlantic market. At the heart of the negotiations is the desire of Europeans to have greater access to America's aviation market. In turn, a number of US carriers want greater access to Heathrow, the world's busiest international hub. Currently, only two American and two British airlines are allowed to fly between Heathrow and US cities.

Although in favour of an Open Skies agreement, Lord Soley is concerned that Heathrow, with only two runways, will not be able to cope with the increased demand, meaning that regional flights will be axed to make way for international ones. This would prevent people from the north of England and Scotland flying from their local airport to Heathrow and then changing planes to travel abroad.

'If you get an agreement on Open Skies, and I hope we do, then it's a very real possibility because it's hard to imagine there won't be more flights to and from the US by other airlines. And if that happens, you have to ask how [Heathrow] will fit them in without dropping something else.'

Lord Soley, who is in favour of the construction of a controversial third runway at Heathrow, added that the airport was already coming under increased competition from airports in mainland Europe, such as in Amsterdam, Paris and Frankfurt.

'Amsterdam is marketing itself as London's third airport. It's a serious challenge. We must have that third runway, otherwise we will create a hub airport elsewhere, and that's a catastrophic outcome for Heathrow.'

The Open Skies talks are part of wide-ranging changes facing the aviation industry, with the American authorities last week opting to loosen their country's strict rules governing the ownership and control of its airlines. Although Washington stopped short of changing the law to allow foreigners to buy US carriers outright, it liberalised the rules on voting rights to give foreign shareholders more influence over those airlines they might take a stake in.

The move was in part a reflection of the desperation of American airlines " many of which are in bankruptcy " for foreign investments.

The proposed changes are of particular interest for British Airways, whose new chief executive, Willie Walsh, has recently said he wants a closer alliance with American Airlines.

Industry watchers believe BA's ultimate plan is to pull off a full merger. The two have tried to join forces twice before but were thwarted by anti- trust concerns because together they control two-thirds of the North Atlantic market.

A precursor to a merger could be closer co-operation, such as code sharing, which allows airlines to put their two-letter identification code on the flights of another airline and to use it in computerised reservations systems.