BA has SIA on radar screen
British carrier is ready to defend home turf as pressure mounts for Britain to let SIA fly the transatlantic route
By NICHOLAS FANG
BRITISH Airways (BA) is game to take on Singapore Airlines (SIA) on the transatlantic route between London and New York, but emphasises that it does not intend to give up its home turf without a fight.
""We have never shied away from competition before, but we do recognise that Singapore Airlines is a fierce competitor,'' British Airways' regional sales and marketing manager for South-east Asia, Mr Rob Coldman, said in an interview yesterday.
""We have a very long history in London as our home market and we want to look after it.''
The current arrangement between the US and Britain restricts access to London's Heathrow Airport to BA and Virgin Atlantic from Britain, and American Airlines and United Airlines from the US.
But in the last three weeks, there have been calls from several quarters in Britain and Singapore to scrap this arrangement.
Lending its weight to the argument was a British parliamentary committee, which said in a report last month that the British government should consider giving SIA the right to operate services to the US from Britain ahead of any bilateral deal on services between Britain and the US.
""We can't comment on the current arrangement as it is a regulatory issue between the US and Britain,'' said Mr Coldman. ""It's the British government's call.''
When asked if he felt that the government had protected BA in its own backyard, he said that ""we have not been a nationalised airline since the 1980s and we have learnt to stand on our own feet''. SIA had requested transatlantic rights from Britain as far back as in 1989, but the government at the time had said it would consider the request when the number of Singapore-London services operated by SIA reached 21 a week.
Despite hitting this threshold some three years ago, SIA has not managed to gain a foothold in the much- sought-after transatlantic route.
This was because the British government had changed its conditions, saying that it would not consider SIA's request until it resolved its talks with the US.
SIA is requesting seven services a week from Heathrow, against the 189 weekly services operated by BA and 63 services by Virgin.
If permission is granted to SIA, it could mean greater pressure for BA, which struggled in the last financial year and reported its first-ever full-year loss of £21 million (S$52.8 million) for the year to March 31.
""The strength of the sterling and the huge increases in jet-fuel prices were the key reasons behind the difficult time we had last year,'' said Mr Coldman, but he believed that the carrier's core strategy will be the cornerstone of its recovery.
""We have been and always will be a customer-focused airline and we believe in responding to their demands.
""Currently, our passengers want greater flexibility in their choice of flights so we will provide greater frequency with smaller planes instead of increasing capacity.''
To that end, BA has focused on reducing its use of Boeing 747 airplanes and increasing its stock of the smaller B777 carrier.
""By 2002, nearly half our long-haul fleet will be B777s,'' said Mr Coldman.
BA has 35 B777s in its fleet of 139 long-haul aircraft, with 12 more on firm order and the option to buy a further 16.
Earlier this year, it announced a £600 million investment in new products that will be introduced over the next two years, including new facilities and more space in their cabins.
Finally,some competition on the trans-atlantic routes from the UK.
Source:Straits Times Singapore