British Airways fuel price-fixing trial collapses

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The trial of three ex-British Airways executives and one current employee on price-fixing charges has collapsed.

Prosecuting QC Richard Latham told the judge at Southwark Crown Court in London he would offer "no evidence".

The four men, who denied wrongdoing, had been accused of agreeing with Virgin Atlantic to fix fuel surcharge prices between 2004 and 2006.

The judge had raised questions about the case brought by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Mr Justice Owen said he had considered "whether the manifest failures on the part of the prosecution are such as to render a fair trial impossible".

Key information

BA's head of sales Andrew Crawley, ex-commercial director Martin George, ex-communications head Iain Burns and ex-UK and Irish Republic sales chief Alan Burnett were the four executives accused of price fixing.

Mr George and Mr Burns resigned from BA in 2006, while Mr Burnett retired in the same year. Mr Crawley remains in his role.

The court heard on Monday how the OFT had failed to disclose key information to the defence.

The OFT said its decision to drop the case "follows the discovery last week of a substantial volume of electronic material, which neither the OFT nor the defence had previously been able to review.

"OFT accepts that to continue with the trial in light of this unforeseen development would be potentially unfair to the defendants."

One e-mail suggested that Virgin had increased its fuel surcharge without consulting BA, undermining claims that the two had colluded on fixing their surcharges.

Lawyers for the four defendants said that had this e-mail come to light earlier, the case may never have come to court.

'Incompetence'

After the collapse, Ben Emmerson QC, representing Mr Burns, attacked the OFT, calling it "not fit for purpose".

He told the court that OFT chief executive John Fingleton and director of cartels Ali Nikpay "must shoulder personal responsibility for this fiasco".

The OFT and prosecutors were "guilty of incompetence on a monumental scale" for pursuing a long and expensive case, Mr Emmerson said.

The OFT rejected these accusations, saying that it had acted in the interests of justice at all times.

Prosecutor Mr Latham added: "The platform for gratuitous abuse which has just been used is wholly unacceptable."

He said the OFT will respond in court on Tuesday, when any applications for costs will also be heard.

The OFT also said it would be reviewing the role of Virgin in the case, particularly in light of its obligations to provide the OFT with "continuous and complete cooperation".

It added: "This may have potential consequences for Virgin's immunity from penalties. However, no inferences or conclusions should be drawn at this stage regarding the outcome of that review."

The charges against the BA executives related to a period of 18 months, when fuel surcharges rose from £5 to £60 for a typical long-haul return ticket

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