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Business Comment

James Moore: Walsh knows his plans for BMI won't be grounded even if he's in the wrong


Outlook You've got to hand it to Willie Walsh. He's got a real talent for talking twaddle with an absolutely straight face. The deal he unveiled yesterday that will see his International Airlines Group taking BMI off Lufthansa's hands tightens significantly the already vice-like grip over take-off and landing slots at Heathrow held by British Airways, now the UK arm of IAG.

Heathrow users that splutter when they hear BA proclaiming itself the "world's favourite airline" are going to have to lump it. If the deal is allowed it will have 53 per cent of them.

Where's the problem, says Mr Walsh. BA will still be less dominant at Heathrow than Air France at Charles de Gaulle (59 per cent), than Lufthansa at Frankfurt (66 per cent), or than KLM at Schiphol (57 per cent). And that's nothing. Take a look around the globe and you'll find worse. Delta, for example, has 76 per cent of the slots at its base. In, ah, Atlanta.

Best not play poker with Mr Walsh. He managed to say all this without even indulging in a cheeky wink even though he was making about as specious an argument as it is possible to make.

Apart from the fact that none of the airports he mentioned occupies quite the pivotal position enjoyed by Heathrow in the UK, just because other airlines enjoy effective monopolies over their own little hubs doesn't make it right.

That is why Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Atlantic are crying foul.

To this Mr Walsh basically raised two fingers and said "yah boo sucks to you, Dicky". While Mr Walsh has been talking up the likelihood of regulators clearing him for take-off, he knows that they might be just a teensy bit concerned about his deal. Which is why he notified them before Sir Richard could get his complaint lodged.

It wasn't so very long ago that Mr Walsh might have had some cause for concern. But given the parlous state of the airline industry, that has all changed. Once-unthinkable alliances, like that between BA and American Airlines, have been cleared. Deals such as the one between BA and Iberia have also flown through.

It has been pointed out that EU regulators did thwart Ryanair's ambitions of taking over Aer Lingus. The Irish government, however, raised some rather strong objections. The British government will lobby in Mr Walsh's favour. Then there is the fact that just about everyone wanted to see Ryanair's chief executive Michael O'Leary getting a bloody nose.

There may still be some remedies forced upon Mr Walsh. But the deal will probably be allowed for the same reasons a string of other dubious-looking transactions have been allowed: there aren't really any other options available.

BMI is in a mess and if Lufthansa can't offload the low-cost bmibaby separately then the final deal might look like it is paying IAG to take BMI off its hands rather than the other way round.

Sir Richard might be right (and there's really nothing worse than Sir Richard when he's right). It doesn't really matter. He can huff and puff all he wants, but he's not going to blow Mr Walsh's house down on this one. And Mr Walsh knows it.