THE North-East's only commercial airline has expressed its "disappointment" after it failed to land key UK route.

It was announced yesterday that the important business link between Newcastle and Birmingham had gone to BA franchisee, British Regional Airlines (BRA).

Newcastle-based Gill Airways had been in negotiations with Maersk Air Ltd and Newcastle Airport to take over the link.

Maersk intend to cease services at the end of October and Gill boasts a long association with the route, having operated on behalf of Maersk for a time.

But yesterday it was revealed the route would instead pass to British Regional Airlines (BRA) which, like Maersk, is a franchisee of British Airways.

Chief Executive oF Gill, Malcolm Naylor said: "We were ready to rescue the service, operating three times daily with modern 48-seat turboprop ATR aircraft.

"We now learn that BRA is, using the BA identity, will come on the route the service was and remains a British Airways product, but the quality the customer will see in terms of aircraft type will now be seriously downgraded."

The accusations were refuted by BRA who said it was a free market.

Commercial director for BRA, Mike Bathgate said: "We looked into running the route because we knew Maersk were pulling out. It was never a case of passing it between the two franchises.

"We are a completely independent company and its success or failure will be down to us not BA.

"To say itwill be an inferior product is surprising and wrong."

The fares published for the Birmingham link see the lowest return priced at £116.20, and Gill says it would have offered lower prices in line with its routes to Belfast and London Stansted.

Gill Airways, which called in administrators in February because of financial problems, still remains on target to return to full independence in the autumn.

A spokeswoman for th airport said: "On this occasion it was BRA who were able to commit aircraft and crew first to ensure continuity of service. "As a by product of BRA has additional service operating from Newcastle to Cardiff."