Walsh: Scotland needs Heathrow to have third runway

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WILLIE Walsh, chief executive of British Airways, last night pledged the company's commitment to Scotland but warned that failure to build a third runway at Heathrow would lead to an "inevitable erosion" of Scottish services in future.

In a wide-ranging speech to the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, Walsh also attacked next month's increases in air passenger duty, calling the rises "unjust, untimely and unhelpful" for the economy.

He said the price hikes would hit the industry in a year when it is already expected to nurse 7 billion of losses worldwide.

Stepping into the general election battle, Walsh reserved his greatest criticism for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats who have expressed their firm opposition to an expansion of Heathrow.

Walsh said: "Heathrow may be operating more reliably and punctually than for many years but it still lacks vital runway capacity when compared to competitor hubs in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam.

"Heathrow desperately needs space to expand flights to China, India, South America and many other parts of the world where international trade is developing rapidly. And the reality is that Heathrow will never be able to provide significant improvement in services to Scotland without additional runway capacity."

Walsh, who earlier this year admitted that BA faces a fight for survival, shrugged off recent remarks from the European Union that its merger plans with the Spanish carrier Iberia, plus a separate tie-up with American Airlines, are likely to falter on competition grounds. He admitted that negotiations have taken "longer than we might have originally anticipated" but he added: "I remain confident in both outcomes and we expect important developments with American Airlines by the end of this month." Talks with Iberia are expected to be finalised by Christmas.

Walsh also addressed recent plans for a high-speed rail link to cut down journey times between London and Scotland. He stressed that improvements in train travel "must be complementary to air travel, not a substitute for it".

He said: "Delivering better links to Scotland should be happening now – not in ten or 20 years as is currently proposed."

Walsh admitted that BA will operate a reduced timetable to Scotland this winter compared to last year. Forty flights will depart London each day to the various Scottish airports. But Walsh stressed BA's service is still "significantly more than any other operator".

He said: "Scotland remains a crucial market for us and giving Scotland global connectivity via London is fundamental to our schedule."

Figures released yesterday showed BA passenger numbers fell 1.7 per cent last month.