- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 15, 2006

LONDON (AP) — Airlines in Britain are beginning to count the multimillion-dollar cost of last week’s terrorist alert - and consider who should pay.

British Airways yesterday led a growing campaign against the British Airports Authority (BAA), which many carriers say was ill-prepared for the emergency that led to hundreds of canceled or delayed flights.

A joint compensation claim against BAA - which operates seven airports in Britain, including London’s Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick - could run as high as $570 million, based on analyst estimates of the airlines’ daily losses.

Airlines say BAA was too slow to respond when the government imposed strict security checks on all passengers and a ban on carry-on luggage last week after the discovery of a plot to blow up more than 10 airplanes on the trans-Atlantic route.

The alert crippled airport operations Thursday, and BAA has struggled to get flight schedules back to normal.

Analysts estimate that the crisis could be costing British airlines a combined $95 million a day, putting the total cost at $570 million by late yesterday.

BAA, which was recently acquired by Spanish construction giant Ferrovial SA for $19 billion, called accusations that it lacked adequate plans “neither fair nor accurate.”

It pointed out that Heathrow, where much of the criticism has been leveled, was designed to cater to 55 million passengers per year but is currently handling 68 million.

“The fact is that Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, is at the best of times significantly overstretched because of the difficulties over many years of securing permission to grow capacity at the airport,” BAA said. “The scale and suddenness of the measures imposed last week could not be managed without significant disruption.”

The airports operator kept bans on carry-on luggage in place for an extra day after the government eased the security threat level Monday. In a bid to ease congestion, it ordered all airlines to cut the number of their departures by between 20 percent and 30 percent each day since the alert, with the threat of losing all their flight slots if they did not.

BAA lifted that requirement yesterday, but British Airways again canceled 20 percent of its flights and said there would be more cancellations today, blaming the scrapped flights on BAA’s inability to cope.

The airline said it was actively considering whether to pursue a compensation claim from BAA.

“Since 9/11, everyone in the industry has known there might be times when extra security measures needed to be put in place,” British Airways Chief Executive Officer Willie Walsh told the Daily Mirror newspaper. “Yet when the moment struck, BAA had no plan ready to keep the airport functioning.”

Ryanair also canceled more flights yesterday from Stansted, its key London airport.

“This morning, we had a situation where, despite assurances to the contrary, the staff were not in place,” said Ryanair spokesman Peter Sherrard. “An hour before scheduled flights, there were still only half the 14 security points open.”

Ryanair, which said it has seen a 10 percent drop in bookings since Thursday, said it was considering legal action against the government to reduce security screening delays at airports. The airline said it would consider compensation after it dealt with the current logistical issues.

It said that the restrictions, which still bar any liquids from being taken through security points, should be reviewed or that police or army personnel should be deployed to speed up the screening of passengers.

Virgin Atlantic Airways said it was considering all options and was prepared to discuss compensation with BAA.

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