Outlook: British Airways

IF BRITISH AIRWAYS shareholders ever tire of their chief executive as well as his tailfins, then Bob Ayling could always find work as a gameshow presenter. The venue for yesterday's unveiling of "oneworld", BA's new global alliance, were the LWT television studios on the South Bank and the result was like Blind Date meets Surprise Surprise!.

Bob likes Don from American Airlines because of its reputation for excellence and customer service. But he is also attracted to Cathay, Canadian and the manly charms of Qantas for the same reason. Together they will offer a seamless service to the customer and access to each other's executive lounges and frequent flyer programmes.

In time, who knows how many more partners will be invited to join in. For BA, American, Qantas and Canadian are all serial bigamists. The only vague surprise in oneworld is the decision of the flighty girls from Cathay to join the swingers' club.

The hype aside, oneworld is not much more than a gigantic codeshare arrangement with knobs on. Its rivals and the regulators might nonetheless stop to wonder where it is all going to end. The five partners could have remained Gladiators fighting it out on their own for supremacy.

But with a world economic downturn on the horizon and the beastly boys from the Star Alliance breathing down their necks, how much more easy it is to stop competing and start to cooperate by joining up their networks. Of the big hitters, only Air France and Continental have yet to select which arranged marriage to join.

Oneworld says that the regulators will not need to trouble themselves over yesterday's link-up since they are not pooling services or revenues. Not yet at least, but the full-blown merger of BA and American's transatlantic services shows which way things are heading. The diminishing band of airlines on the outside of such alliances wonder how quickly co-operation will turn into collusion, all of which merely increases the incentive to join up.

Bob promises collusion is not on the agenda but Richard over at Virgin suspects otherwise. As they say in LWT land, You Bet!

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