Airline chiefs execute a belly-flop landing

David Usborne reports on a bout of jousting in Washington in which British Airways and American Airlines fared badly
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It is minutes after the chiefs of British Airways and American Airlines have ended their testimony before a committee of the United States Senate on their proposed alliance for services across the Atlantic. Lingering in the corridors, a lawyer who is closely involved asks: "Who advises Bob Ayling?" His tone is despairing.

Mr Ayling and his American Airlines counterpart, Bob Crandall, had just executed something of a belly-flop landing. This group of senators, members of the Senate Commerce Committee, had been expected to provide the two Bobs with asympathetic audience. That was the advance billing. Instead, the unhappy pair found themselves the targets of scepticism.

In a committee room packed to capacity, Messrs Ayling and Crandall were seated at one end of a narrow table occupied at the other end by three of their most dangerous opponents - Stephen Wolf of US Airways,Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic and Sir Freddie Laker.

The first to speak, Mr Ayling put his foot in it at once. This was, he informed us, the first appearance before Congress of any official from British Airways or from its ancestor companies. If he thought the senators would be impressed, he was wrong. The remark seemed ill-judged given that BA had been asked to testify at a previous hearing on the American deal and had failed to show up.

And then there were the charts. The Bobs had a stack of them to match their litany of indigestible statistics. The point they were trying to make was fair. Consider things like city-pair numbers, market shares, revenue generation and so forth and the BA-AA deal looks small fry compared with some other alliances that have won approval.

But senators do not care much for statistics. They like a bit of cut and thrust. They like sarcasm and witty one-liners that Mr Branson and Sir Freddie had in jumbo-jet loads. And underdogs will always be more attractive than industry captains with reputations for arrogance.

Sir Freddie said: "Mortals should not be allowed to have this amount of power." With those words he got to the political nub that senators can appreciate.

The senators were also given a clear lesson in slots - the rights that airlines must acquire to be able to take off and land at Heathrow Airport. Mr Ayling was rattled when Senator Wendell Ford of Kentucky suggested that BA and AA "ante up" exactly the same number of slots they have at US airports to American carriers wanting to serve London. "I think that would be unprecedented," Mr Ayling stammered. "Well," Senator Ford shot back, "I guess we are going to be doing some things we haven't done before."

It was when Mr Ayling suggested that "anyone who wants to get slots [at Heathrow] can do so", that Mr Branson erupted. Grabbing at his hair in theatrical exasperation, he blurted out of turn: "It's incredible to hear this man being able to look you in the eye and say this."

Next week another Senate committee concerned with anti-trust issues also tackles the BA-AA deal. A smiling Mr Branson plans to be there. Whether Mr Ayling will savour making BA's second congressional appearance in history must be more doubtful.