Air fares from Birmingham International Airport are becoming cheaper and cheaper as competition hots up, it was claimed yesterday.

The statistics were revealed as Monarch Scheduled made its inaugural flight from the airport.

Since low cost airlines began operating from BIA, prices on average have halved over the last five years, while the choice of destinations on offer has increased from one to 33.

Industry figures reveal that an average return fare from Birmingham in 2000 was £210 compared with just £110 this year, a fall of 47 per cent - prices were measured over a six month winter period when fares are at their lowest.

Monarch Scheduled's first flight was to Malaga. In its first season it will offer services to Malaga, Tenerife, Faro and Alicante.

Fares start from £39 one way including taxes.

BIA has announced that Alpha Airport Holdings has been awarded the new sevenyear tax and duty free concession contract for both passenger terminals.

The partnership, which is subject to contracts being finalised, is forecast to generate a turnover of approximately £200 million over the period.

Alpha has held the contract for the last 30 years and has a strong presence at BIA in areas of retail, catering and in-flight catering. The award followed a competitive tender process which attracted bids from across Europe.

The win comes as the airport is expanding the Terminal 1 departure lounge to include a new 1,200 sq m flagship store, which will be some 80 per cent larger than the existing five individual outlets.

Peter Vella, business development director for the airport,

said: "Alpha won the contract due to a combination of the financial offer, innovative shop design and merchandise mix."

David King, managing director of Alpha Airport Holdings, said: "Alpha has an excellent longstanding relationship with Birmingham built up through years of working closely with the airport, and the new contract will serve to strengthen these links even further."

The store in Terminal 2 is 450 sq m and will also undergo a major redevelopment and extension later this year.

In addition to the contract, Alpha also manages the airport's news and book shops, a number of catering outlets in both terminal buildings, and operates an in-flight catering service.

Meanwhile a total of £6.8 billion will be invested in London's three main airports over the next ten years.

Passenger numbers at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted are expected to grow from the current 121 million a year to 162 million a year by

2014-2015, airport operator BAA said. The company added that its 10-year forecast did not take into account any runway expansion at Heathrow and Stansted.

There are plans for a second runway at Stansted in Essex around 2011, while a short, third, runway at Heathrow in west London could be built around 2015.

BAA said it expected Heathrow annual passenger numbers to increase from 67.7 million in 2004-05 to 86 million in 2014-2015. Gatwick numbers over the same period were likely to rise from 32 million to 41 million while Stansted numbers could rise from 21.2 million to 35 million.

The 2004-05 traffic grew at the three London airports by 6.2 per cent and BAA invested £1.28 billion. The company said that Heathrow's new £4.2 billion Terminal 5 was on schedule and due to open at the end of March 2008.