Virgin v British Airways: was the Corbyn saga part of the old rivalry?

Richard Branson tweeted CCTV images on the day BA flew Olympic athletes home – the latest twist in a long PR battle

Sir Richard Branson described it as the “best stunt ever”.

On the September day in 1999 that the London Eye was due to be erected, the giant ferris wheel could not be lifted off the ground. Branson saw an opportunity to get one over on an old rival. British Airways owned a third of the London Eye and was going to be the title sponsor.

“I was woken up at 5.30 one morning to be told that the BA-sponsored London Eye had a technical problem – they couldn’t erect it,” Branson later said. “They had the world’s press waiting to see it going up and I knew we had a duty to give them something to look at.”

So, Branson scrambled an airship to fly over the site. It bore the slogan: “BA can’t get it up!!”

Unsurprisingly, the blimp generated significant attention in the media and went on to win a string of marketing awards.

The stunt is a reminder of the public battle that has raged between Virgin and BA since Branson launch his airline Virgin Atlantic in 1984.

The companies were top of the news agenda again this week. On Tuesday, British Airways flew back Team GB from the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. The VIP aircraft was named victoRIOus and was decorated with a gold nosecone and the slogan #greattobeBAck. Photos of the British Airways aircraft adorned the front pages of newspapers and websites.

The Team GB homecoming, brought to you by British Airways.
The Team GB homecoming, brought to you by British Airways. Photograph: Zemanek/BPI/REX/Shutterstock

On the same day, Virgin Trains released a statement and CCTV images disputing a claim from Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, that a train he had been on from London to Newcastle was overcrowded and he had been unable to find a seat. Branson also tweeted out the statement and images.

If you were being cynical, you would point out that Virgin’s statement on Corbyn helped to divert attention away from BA flying Britain’s athletes back home. It took Virgin a week to respond to Corbyn’s comments.

Mark Borkowski, a PR expert and founder and creative director at Borkowski, says Branson would have been reeling about BA flying back the Olympic team.

“They [BA] certainly squeezed the living daylights out of bringing home the Olympic team,” he says. “It was manna from heaven, and I am sure Branson would have loved to be the carrier. He would have been there, carrying the champagne. He is a showman.

“That was a commercial deal, fixed with the chief executive of the Olympic team. It is a no brainer for Team GB to be brought back on BA. But I would have thought Branson would have been watching that with a tear in his eyes, because he would have done it a lot better.”

Borkowski says that Virgin Trains may have timed their statement to coincide with the coverage that BA’s flight was getting, but that it was also important to respond to Corbyn’s criticism.

“You could say that. Of course you are looking at acres and acres of phenomenal press where the brand has done a deal with the Olympic team and has hit the jackpot. He would have loved to have done that with Virgin, I am sure.

“The two things [Olympics and Corbyn criticism] have created a perfect storm. I think the way the Corbyn thing played was to stop that growing and not allow Jeremy Corbyn to take the initiative.”

Virgin sources say that it took a week to respond to Corbyn because the company had to trawl through the CCTV footage and establish what had taken place.

When it came, the response was a reminder of Branson’s aggressive approach to public relations and marketing. “He is a showman, he is a risk-taker and few people have stood up and created the rock’n’roll CEO. He did, he invented it,” Borkowski says.

Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson poses with model Kate Moss on a wing of a jumbo jet at Heathrow airport, 2009
Virgin Atlantic boss Sir Richard Branson poses with model Kate Moss in 2009. Photograph: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images

Branson’s attempts to promote Virgin and take on BA have included carrying Kate Moss and Pamela Anderson on the wings of a Virgin Atlantic plane, dressing as a Zulu warrior for the launch of flights to South Africa, and putting the Union flag on the tailfin of all Virgin Atlantic planes after BA caused national uproar in 1997 by calling the flag “remote and aloof” and replacing it with multicoloured images.

From the start, Branson promoted Virgin Atlantic as the brash, young challenger to BA and the establishment. This was not just through advertising though, with the pair becoming embroiled in a series of bitter legal battles.

The rivalry really intensified in the early 1990s. The competition authorities ruled that BA was too dominant at Heathrow airport so handed Virgin Atlantic some of its prized slots as well as lucrative services to Tokyo. This opened the door for Branson’s airline to become an established long-haul carrier, with Virgin Atlantic moving its base from Gatwick to Heathrow as a result.

Lord King, the then boss of BA, was furious with these developments. He had overseen the privatisation of the airline and ensured that its dominance was protected. Now, however, he was having to deal with a new rival in Branson. King cancelled BA’s donations to the Conservative party in protest.

The BA boss was also irked when Britons stranded in the Gulf by Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait were airlifted to safety by Branson’s airline rather than the national flagcarrier.

As BA’s frustration grew, King allegedly told his lieutenants to “do something about Branson”. Two years later, BA had to pay damages of more than £600,000 to Branson and Virgin as well as legal costs of £3m after an alleged “dirty tricks” campaign against the tycoon and his airline. Branson had accumulated evidence of BA poaching customers, tampering with confidential files, and leaking anti-Virgin stories. Eventually, BA apologised and admitted to “disreputable business practice” in the high court.

Howard Wheeldon, aviation analyst, says: “To say John King was obsessed with the threat of competition would be an understatement – the obvious rivalry between him and Richard Branson was of a kind that I had personally never experienced before, or indeed since. It was a bad kind of rivalry that turned into what I believe was really a secret obsession by John King to damage Virgin.

“As an example, I remember Lord King speaking at the Aviation Club once and the following month Richard Branson speaking as well. Lord King and his entourage also attended the Branson lunch but as he was being introduced to the lunch audience King and his entourage got up and all walked out.”

After a brief truce following the departure of King, in 2006 Virgin Atlantic reported to the US and UK competition authorities that it had talked with BA about price-fixing fuel surcharges. Virgin Atlantic won immunity in the investigation that followed, while BA was eventually fined £270m by the UK’s Office of Fair Trading and the US Department of Justice, although these were subsequently reduced and a criminal trial of four BA executives accused of conspiring with Virgin Atlantic collapsed.

Financially, BA has continued to outperform Virgin Atlantic by posting larger profits and holding a larger market share. Branson has pumped money into Virgin Atlantic after selling other assets, such as Virgin Records in 1992, and sold a 49% stake to Singapore Airlines in 1999 which was later sold on to Delta.

This has not dampened the rivalry, however. In 2012, around the time of Virgin Atlantic’s deal with Delta, Willie Walsh, the boss of BA’s parent company, IAG, bet Branson a “knee in the groin” that in five years time Branson would not hold 51% of the airline.

“We’ve got used to BA hitting below the belt over the years, but I’m confident it would be the other way around on this occasion,” Branson replied.

So if the tycoon is still there in a year’s time, the rivalry between Virgin and BA could take another bizarre twist.


Graham Ruddick

The GuardianTramp

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