BA continues 'dirty tricks': Branson accuses airline of 'blatantly disregarding' pledges not to woo Virgin customers after High Court fight

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The Independent Online
FRESH evidence has emerged that British Airways employees have continued a 'dirty tricks' campaign against Virgin Atlantic to woo away its customers.

This comes despite BA's pledge to halt all such activities, after a humiliating climbdown in the High Court on 11 January in which the airline apologised for 'regrettable' incidents.

Virgin had accused BA staff of accessing its computer records and using them to 'cold-call' passengers booked on Virgin, trying to poach them by offering upgraded seats.

After the court case BA stated it was 'taking appropriate action to ensure that the regrettable incidents which we have identified involving our employees do not occur again'. However, travel agents on the West Coast of America have alleged that since that statement, fresh attempts have been made to poach Virgin passengers.

Last night Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin, when told of the allegations, accused BA of 'blatantly disregarding' its own pledges: 'They promised the dirty tricks would stop and they clearly haven't. Sir Freddie Laker said that British Airways was a leopard that couldn't change its spots. But I still find it amazing that only a month after admitting it in court, they are at it again.'

Earlier yesterday Mr Branson had given BA a deadline of lunchtime today to make a 'sensible' offer of compensation over the affair or face legal action in the US. Mr Branson is thought to want pounds 30m-pounds 40m from BA for what he says was the 'serious commercial damage' done by the campaign. If he won a US anti-trust case those damages could be tripled - although the case might take years.

Virgin has twice extended its deadline to give both sides more time. But yesterday Mr Branson said: 'If we haven't heard something sensible from them in the next 24 hours there is no point in carrying on talking.'

Fresh allegations of dirty tricks come from Californian travel agents. John Healy owns British Imports and Travel, a small Long Beach agency; he claims clients have been getting unsolicited calls at home from BA representatives.

One case he cites involved a professor from the University of Southern California who was booked by the agency to travel to the UK on 25 January with a Virgin economy return apex ticket. Shortly before he was due to travel, the professor was called at home by BA, offering to upgrade his ticket. The offer was repeated at the airport.

Mr Healy's partner, Rommel Manalo, claims he has been cold-called a dozen times in the past two months by BA. 'The BA representative always offers an upgrade to business class if I switch my tickets from Virgin to BA. When the BA callers realise I'm the agent and not the customer, they get really embarrassed and slam the phone down.

'Occasionally they stay on the line and try and persuade me to switch my passengers to BA. They offer me a financial inducement to do this by selling the tickets to me at lower than the normal rate.'

Mr Manalo believes he has been getting the calls because of his habit of putting his own number, not the passenger's, into the computer.

'I do this with many of my customers to help them out if there are changes in their flights. It's all part of the service . . . I'm totally baffled as to how BA can access the information about Virgin passengers that I put into my computer,' he said.

Mr Manalo first publicly complained about the calls a year ago during the This Week programme that originally exposed the smear campaign, but he says the calls have continued; the last was three weeks ago.

The travel agency has also been baffled by recent telephone calls said to be from Virgin Airlines. 'We were asked for the telephone numbers of ticketed passengers to update their flight details with them,' Mr Healy alleged.

'We've been dealing with Virgin for about four years, and we've never had this type of request before. We eventually decided to contact Virgin directly in Los Angeles and New York and they told us that this was not their policy.'

A BA spokesman said on News at Ten last night: 'BA will look into the facts of this story to see if it warrants further comment.'

Martyn Gregory and Michael Chrisman produced the ITV 'This Week' programme that first exposed British Airways' dirty tricks campaign in February 1992.