Branson steps up pressure for BA concessions

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The Independent Online
RICHARD BRANSON will today step up his campaign for concessions from British Airways and a tougher government role in regulating abuses in the airline industry.

This emerged as evidence accumulated that the dirty tricks campaign against Virgin reached as far as BA's boardroom.

Mr Branson is expected to use a meeting with John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport - scheduled before Virgin's court victory last week - to ask for many of BA's best take-off and landing slots at Heathrow to be taken away and allocated to Virgin.

Following BA's public apology to Virgin in the High Court last week, and the payment of pounds 610,000 in damages, he is also to renew his request for an 'Ofair' watchdog to regulate the airline industry.

A Virgin source said the company would feel compelled in 10 or 11 days to take action against BA in America or under the Treaty of Rome 'unless there is an expression of good faith from both the Government and British Airways'.

If successful in its demands, Virgin intends to expand its fleet from eight to 18 jumbos, and to introduce services between Heathrow and destinations including Chicago, Johannesburg and San Francisco. Although Virgin has been awarded licences to operate these and other routes it has so far been denied the necessary take- off and landing slots.

Although evidence is emerging that Sir Colin Marshall, BA's chief executive, was a key player in the affair, a Virgin source said yesterday: 'We are not calling for heads to roll. It is for BA's board to sit down and to ensure that these things never happen again.' He said that Virgin was loath to pursue any further legal action unless forced to do so.

BA's non-executive directors, including Sir Michael Angus, the president of the Confederation of British Industry, will try to get to the bottom of the dirty tricks debacle over the next few weeks.

One internal report on the issue has been completed and will be presented to the board on Friday. There is speculation that Sir Colin will not now be able to take over from Lord King as chairman in June. However, a source close to BA said that the internal report does not appear to put further pressure on any individual.

Inquiries by the Independent on Sunday have revealed that analysis of confidential information from Virgin's computer records was sent to Sir Colin's office, and that he instigated a report on Virgin and on Mr Branson. The inquiries also show that Sir Colin gave approval for a pounds 40,000 payment for the report, which was compiled by Brian Basham, then acting as BA's external relations consultant. BA is believed to have hired the public relations expert Sir Tim Bell.