Nigeria gives BA, Virgin Atlantic ultimatum on fares
* BA, Virgin have 30 days to rebalance fares - Nigeria
* Britain says banning airlines would be "catastrophic"
By Joe Brock
ABUJA, March 26 (Reuters) - Nigeria has given airlines British Airways (BA) and Virgin Atlantic 30 days to lower fares or face a ban from flying to the West African nation, its aviation minister said on Monday.
Britain responded by saying it could take retaliatory action against Nigerian airlines if a ban was imposed, and that "heavy-handed action" banning private airlines would be "catastrophic" for business confidence in the country.
Nigeria's aviation minister has said it is unfair BA and Virgin charged more to fly to Africa's biggest oil exporter than to neighboring West African countries.
Its civil aviation authority fined the two airlines last year a combined $235 million for fixing prices. BA, which is owned by International Airlines Group and Virgin, rejected the accusation.
"We are seriously concerned and worried by the reluctance to restore parity within the region by the foreign airlines," Aviation Minister Stella Oduah said in a statement.
"They have been using all kinds of delay tactics, this is unacceptable and will no longer be tolerated... (we will) resolve this issue once and for all."
Britain said only business and first class fares were more expensive to Nigeria than neighboring countries because of high demand for those seats. It also said banning BA and Virgin would break a bilateral air services agreement.
"It (the ban) would cause potential foreign investors to question whether they want to put their money in Nigeria and have a long-term and damaging effect on Nigeria's growth," the British High Commission spokesman said.
"The prime minister and President (Goodluck) Jonathan signed a joint communique last year pledging to double bilateral trade. Action against BA and Virgin would damage that strategic aim."
A BA official in Abuja declined to comment.
The fare dispute is running parallel to another row between Nigeria and Britain over airport landing slots.
Nigeria's biggest carrier Arik Air said this month it would have to stop its daily flights between Abuja and London Heathrow because it was being prevented from getting arrival and departure slots at UK airports.
"It is wrong to suggest that Arik has been prevented from flying into Heathrow. Our understanding is that Arik is just unwilling to pay for the cost of renting or buying landing slots," the British spokesman said, adding it was something all airlines who want new slots into Heathrow needed to do. (Reporting by Joe Brock; Editing by Tim Cocks)
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