Abigail Townsend: Branson is right: security is a fine use of our taxes

Airlines and BAA must join forces to ensure safety is put first, and paid for
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The Independent Online

Horror of all horrors, but I find myself in agreement with Sir Richard Branson. The bearded publicity machine is not someone I find I can take all that seriously, despite his billions - perhaps it's all those cross-dressing publicity stunts and balloon rides getting in the way.

But the airline he chairs, Virgin Atlantic, has started lobbying the Government to pay for security measures at British airports, and quite rightly so.

Rival British Airways has been reported as saying it accepts the status quo, where the industry funds its own security. But this is a misnomer. The industry does not fund it, the consumer does. Because business never pays for anything - its customers do. Airlines are, by and large, public companies with shareholders to keep happy and a duty to protect their profits. Announcing that profits are down because of extra costs will see the share price suffer and anger investors and analysts. Adding a terror surcharge will not.

Which is exactly the sort of thing that will annoy customers. If you want to fly, and millions of us do, you will have no choice but to pay up.

So either business loses, or the consumer loses. Yet security is not a business issue. Controlling the terror risk can only ever be in the hands of governments. You may be able to hedge rises in the price in crude, but you sure as hell can't hedge the prospect of suicide bombers getting on your aircraft. Stopping terrorists should happen not only at the boarding gate. So why should business and consumers pay for government failings?

When we say government should pay, of course, we mean taxpayers. But ensuring our security is not the worst use of taxes I have ever heard.

So that's one in favour of Sir Richard. But I have not entirely lost my head and started agreeing with Michael O'Leary. The Ryanair boss pompously announced last week that unless security measures are returned to normal post haste, he will sue the Government. Well, call me old-fashioned, but I would rather leave security assessments to governments, and not to chief executives of businesses that rely on getting passengers on to their planes as quickly as possible.

This though just sums up the aviation industry. Everyone has a different opinion and most people are at each other's necks. Even the old chestnut of BAA being broken up has been aired again, with the Stansted Airline Consultative Committee choosing last week to confirm it had filed a submission to the Office of Fair Trading on the matter.

This is not the time for any of this. Instead of bickering about who's to blame and who should be doing what, the airlines and BAA should come together, approach the Government as one, and ensure it acts to make sure security is uniform, informed, safe and, most crucially, paid for.

All smoke and mirrors

When a US judge ruled last week that tobacco companies had violated anti-racketeering laws, surely it should have been a big deal. Instead, the manufacturers were banned from using phrases such as "low tar" on packaging. There were no huge fines, nor was the industry forced to fund anti-smoking efforts.

But what did everyone expect? Crippling fines will kill the industry. If governments wanted to stamp out smoking, they would ban it. Not just in public, but everywhere. But they won't. Some will say there's no point, that smoking would simply go underground. Cynics would argue, and I'd agree, that no tax-conscious government is going to kill the goose that lays the golden egg.

And then there's the industry itself. It has become a seasoned pro at rebuffing hostile tilts - Philip Morris, instead of enjoying what could be termed a lucky escape, is apparently considering appealing.

Smoking is here to stay. Governments will threaten us, warn us, ban it in some areas - but a total ban? Never. So don't expect even the heavy-handed US courts to come down on an industry that most people hate - and investors and governments love.