BA's Paris-New York service opens for business

British Airways risks further undermining its relationship with pilots on Thursday as it starts selling tickets for its transatlantic OpenSkies airline.

The Paris-to-New York service will begin flying on June 19 with the threat of crippling industrial action still hanging over its owner. BA pilots have voted overwhelmingly to strike over the new carrier, which they claim is a stalking horse for imposing worse terms and conditions, but industrial action is on hold pending a high court ruling.

Robert Boyle, BA’s commercial director, said the airline is determined to go ahead with the launch of OpenSkies even though the legal dispute is unlikely to be resolved in June, with both sides expected to appeal against an adverse ruling. The airline is BA’s riposte to the competitive threat posed by a treaty liberalising transatlantic air travel, also called Open Skies, which allows any European Union-based carrier to fly to the US and vice-versa.

“Our intention with this was to take advantage of the opportunity offered by the Open Skies treaty.
If we hang around the opportunity will not be there any more,” he said. The high court case, which started this week, is not expected to reach a verdict on the legality of the proposed strike until next month at the earliest.

“We have not sought this fight. We have done something that we think will benefit our business. Our legal advice is that if they go on strike it would be illegal,” he said.

Meanwhile, OpenSkies officially opened for business this morning by offering tickets on the first Paris Orly to New York JFK flights. It will offer business class flatbed seats at $1 700 for a one way journey, with premium economy costing $700 and economy costing $500. Boyle said OpenSkies, which will fly one plane decorated with BA livery, is a genuine departure from other BA services, starting with the fact that under the old transatlantic flight agreements BA was barred from operating US flights from continental Europe.

The 82-seater Boeing 757 plane will also have a new cabin layout, with the long-term possibility of turning the subsidiary into a business class-only carrier to rival the likes of Silverjet, which operates a first class-only service from Luton airport.

“Our real aim is that we are targeting the premium end of the market,” said Boyle, who confirmed that BA will operate the service in tandem with L’Avion, a French business class-only carrier.

BA also warned that negotiations on a second stage of the Open Skies treaty have been a damp squib so far. The European commission wants to build on the first agreement with the lifting of ownership restrictions for EU and US carriers.

Currently, an EU carrier can own no more than 25% of a US airline, while a US airline’s shareholding in a European counterpart is limited to 49%. John Wood, BA’s negotiator in the Open Skies talks, said: “The US team does not necessarily subscribe to the ambition of a full open aviation area.” He added that the first stage of the treaty gave the US carriers everything they wanted, including access to Heathrow airport, and very little to EU airlines.

“We were disappointed that the EU did not get a better deal and we did not find it edifying that both sides are celebrating a ‘magnificent’ achievement,” he said. However, Wood said he was “optimistic” that a deal can be done on ownership following the establishment of the Transatlantic Economic Council, a joint EU-US body that is expected to put pressure on the US to loosen shareholding guidelines. - Â

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