Lift-Off for BA's Profits as the Premium Seats Fill Up; CITY BRIEFING

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Byline: ROBERT LEA

BRITISH Airways is on course to reveal its biggest profits since the turn of the millennium as returning first class and business class passengers, plus a controversial fuel surcharge on ordinary passengers, offset the soaring oil price.

For the nine months to the end of December, BA's pre-tax profits came in at [pounds sterling]410 million, more than double the [pounds sterling]185 million reported in the same period in 2003.

For October to December, profits were [pounds sterling]50 million down on the previous year at [pounds sterling]75 million, but chief executive Rod Eddington called the numbers "respectable", given a year-on-year [pounds sterling]106 million rise in the fuel bill, an increase of nearly 50%. Yet, despite the continuing high cost of fuel, a raft of data from the flag carrier indicates BA is in line to report its best annual profits in the year to the end of March since 1999, when pre-tax earnings last topped [pounds sterling]400 million.

Though the current January-to-March trading quarter is traditionally BA's toughest, latest figures reveal a 12% leap in the number of passengers flying first and business class.

Moreover, chairman Martin Broughton has upgraded BA's revenue outlook for the year to an increase of between 3% and 3. …