Shares in British Airways fell sharply today as City gloom deepened over the airline's trading outlook.

One analyst warned that oil prices remaining at current record levels could send BA's operating profit plunging from £870 million to as low as £25 million.

There were also fears that a financial sector slowdown and increased competition could hit its most profitable routes across the Atlantic, sending shares as much as 7% lower.

The warnings came just days after the carrier posted record pre-tax profits of £883 million, paid a dividend for the first time since 2001, and rewarded staff with a £35 million bonus pool.

Chief executive Willie Walsh said the results made him feel like he had "won the premier league", but he warned about difficulties lying ahead this year thanks to high fuel costs.

Mr Walsh said the airline faced spending an extra £1 billion on fuel this year if prices remained around the 120 dollar a barrel mark. Crude currently costs around 125 US dollars, having risen around 30% this year alone.

Andrew Lobbenberg of ABN Amro today cut the airline to a sell recommendation, citing the punishing cost of oil and looming travel cutbacks.
"We struggle to understand how the challenges facing the financial services industries are not affecting the transatlantic premium business and we think that in time BA will see weakness in this key segment," he said.

He added that the recently signed Open Skies agreement which allows carriers to fly across the Atlantic from other countries could also have an impact on trading.

Mr Lobbenberg said oil remaining at 120 US dollars could see BA's operating profits come in at just £25 million this financial year if BA's other forecasts such as 4% revenue growth and a £200 million rise in non-fuel costs remained the same.

This would see the operating margin drop as low as 0.3%, compared to 10% for the past year. He said the airline faced having to axe some routes later this year to cope with the higher fuel costs.

"We expect BA will lower its capacity in the winter, in particular targeting its weakest performing capacity, which we believe is the short haul operations from Gatwick," he said. "We imagine BA will also make considerable efforts to reduce its non-fuel costs."

Andrew Fitchie from broker Collins Stewart said the airline would need to make sharp cuts costs in the face of high oil prices.

"To be fundamentally economic at 120 US dollars oil, BA needs to either boost unit revenues by 14% or cut costs by 13%, or a combination of both," he said.