Fair competition chiefs should consider separate ownership of Heathrow and Stansted airports, British Airways said yesterday.

Airport operator BAA runs both airports as well as five others in the UK.

The Office of Fair Trading is currently looking at the whole question of the UK airport market.

In its response to an OFT consultation, BA said it should refer the matter to the Competition Commission.

BA added that the commission should consider "the separate ownership of Heathrow and Stansted airports".

BA said it believed that "decisions on new runway construction in south east England should not be concentrated in the hands of one company".

It said the commission "should recommend airport regulation that delivers a better outcome for consumers and airlines".

The commission "should also enhance competition in the UK airports market and provide an effective framework for future airport growth".

In the event of a break-up of BAA, BA said there would be a continued need for strong regulation to protect users against monopoly power, particularly at Heathrow and Gatwick, which is another BAA-run airport.

BA chief executive Willie Walsh said: "The Competition Commission has an important role to play in determining the future of UK airports.

"Separate ownership of Heathrow and Stansted would make infrastructure developments at the airports more responsive to airlines' and their customers' needs and expansion at one airport would not be held back to suit the commercial needs of a monopoly owner."

BA believes there should be increased competition within the London airports and is proposing competitive tendering for a wider range of services, such as IT systems.

It wants improvements to the regulatory framework governing BAA's London airports, such as the introduction of a licence. This would enable the Civil Aviation Authority, as regulator, to enforce service quality guarantees, as is the case with some utility companies.

Mr Walsh added: "We want to see sharper incentives for better customer service and for BAA to be more responsive to the needs of its users."

In its response to the OFT, budget airline Ryanair called for the break-up of the BAA monopoly.

Ryanair's head of regulatory affairs and company secretary Jim Callaghan said: "Ryanair has long called for the breakup of the BAA airport

monopoly, which is seriously damaging the competitiveness of the UK air transport market.

"BAA controls over 90 per cent of London airport capacity and also dominates the Scottish airports market. The CAA as regulator of the London airports has failed to prevent BAA from developing gold-plated facilities that do not meet the requirements of the airlines and their passengers and have led to inflated airport charges for consumers.

"We have detailed a number of abuses by the BAA that would justify a reference by the OFT to the Competition Commission and are calling on the OFT to recommend a break-up of this monopoly as the most effective means of introducing competition into this important market."

Andy Harrison, easyJet chief executive, said: "Consumers need better protection from the airport operators who behave like local monopolists, pushing up prices to hide their own inefficiencies. The issue of ownership is secondary to providing the right regulatory regime."