Battle of the Airlines: How the dirty tricks campaign was run: Martyn Gregory reports on BA's 'dirty tricks' campaign, which he uncovered as producer/director of Thames Television's This Week programme

IN THE late summer of 1990, British Airways held a closed meeting at Gatwick airport. It was the start of a campaign of commercial dirty tricks against their British rivals.

Last night on ITN's News at Ten, the chairman of Virgin Atlantic, Richard Branson, claimed that if Lord King and Sir Colin Marshall had been caught doing this in the US they would be behind bars. 'I'm not so sure they shouldn't be put behind bars here,' he added.

At the Gatwick meeting was BA's Helpline team. Until then members of the team had been responsible for 'meeting and greeting' passengers as they transferred between airlines and giving special help to elderly passengers. Behind locked doors, Jeff Day, the head of British Airways special services and sales at the airport, addressed the Helpliners.

'British Airways doesn't make money by helping old biddies to the gate,' he quipped. 'From now on we must get more passengers from other airlines.'

Listening attentively was Sadig Khalifa, 41, a member of BA's Helpline team. From now on, Mr Khalifa and his colleagues would have dramatically different duties - to try to undermine three of BA's main British rivals, Dan Air, Air Europe and, most importantly, Virgin Atlantic. The team was told that in future, its key task would be to access highly confidential information from its rivals' computer systems.

'We were shown how to get the information by tapping into our computer terminals in the Helpline office. We tapped in with our regular BA code and called up the Virgin flight numbers'.

In common with many other airlines, Virgin rents out a segment of a vast computer known as Babs - British Airways Booking System. Mr Khalifa and his colleagues simply tapped into it. 'We could see on the Babs computer system when a flight was open, when it closed, if it was delayed and how many passengers were due to board.'

For the next nine months the Helpline hackers provided BA with critical information on Virgin's flights.

The secrecy of the operation was emphasised at all times. Mr Khalifa recalls: 'Special combination locks were fixed to the Helpline doors - only team members knew the combination. We were told never to discuss work with other BA staff or mention it to our friends or our families.' The Helpliners were told that even behind their locked office doors the word 'Virgin' must never appear on documents left in the office. 'Sometimes we couldn't get all the information we needed,' Mr Khalifa said, 'so BA instructed us to phone Ogden Allied (Virgin's handling agents at Gatwick) and pretend to be Virgin staff. It was very easy. We were never challenged. We got into Air Europe's system but not Dan Air's because they use a different handling agent. So we simply phoned up Dan Air's agents at the airport, Gatwick Handling, and impersonated Dan Air staff.'

Airlines guard information of this sort jealously. Load factors are a crucial determinant of a company's economics. Gaining an immediate picture of how many people boarded (as opposed to booked on) their rivals' flights, and how many travelled in which class was commercial gold dust for BA. As a near-monopoly, with the resources to target its competitors who were all very small operations, BA could use this information to crush them by swamping their routes with alternative flights and cut-price deals.

Virgin is the only one of the three airlines targeted by BA's Helpline team that is still in business.

Richard Branson admitted last night: 'Had we only had the airline, we would have gone under. The Helpliners had a noticeable effect on us. Particularly our most profitable route out of Gatwick to Newark. The strength of the other Virgin companies saved us.'

The Helpliners worked in groups of five to eight.

'At the end of our shift we collated the information and we filled out special forms for each airline. We placed the forms in sealed brown envelopes and passed them personally to our supervisor. The next morning the envelopes were collected by Jeff Day.'

Mr Branson's belief that the information was passed from the Gatwick unit right to the top of BA is backed up by a former manager in BA's marketing support team in London. He says that information on Air Europe, gleaned by tapping into its files, was passed to the office of Liam Strong, then BA's director of marketing.

When the BA team in the North Terminal learnt from the Virgin computer that a flight was delayed, they would take the monorail to the South Terminal. With white carnations in their lapels they would fan out through the departure area seeking delayed Virgin passengers. They would sidle up to them and seek to persuade them to transfer to BA.

This was the public face of Helpline - it annoyed BA's competitors and many passengers but it is viewed as standard, if sharp, practice. BA had a team at Heathrow working in parallel with Helpline. They were called 'Hunters'.

With a tiny fleet of only seven aircraft, Virgin is particularly vulnerable to having its passengers poached as it can often be difficult to find another aircraft if one breaks down. But Helpline's sorties to the South Terminal had another purpose - to try to supplement the information they were hacking out of Babs. The only way they could find out many people actually boarded (as opposed to booked) was to access the terminals of Ogden Allied, Virgin's handling agents.

Mr Khalifa recalls: 'After the Virgin flights had departed, the gates were deserted and so were their computer terminals.

'While one of the Helpline team kept look-out, I quickly tried to get into the computer. We had no reason for being near the gates in the South Terminal at all . . . I tried several times to get into their computer but failed. Ogden had issued their staff with a special card to prevent hacking.'

Virgin suspects that British Airways eventually managed to get the critical Passenger Name Lists with details of their Upper Class customers' home numbers and travel timetables directly from Babs.

This breakthrough enabled BA to cold-call Virgin passengers at home or in their hotels.

(Photograph omitted)

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
life
Life and Style
It is believed that historically rising rates of alcohol consumption have contributed to the increase
food + drink
News
An Apple iPhone 6 stands on display at the Apple Store
businessRegulators give iPhone 6 and 6 Plus the green light
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Britain's internet habits have been revealed in a new survey
tech
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
film
Arts and Entertainment
The White Sails Hospital and Spa is to be built in the new Tunisia Economic City.
architectureRussian billionaire designs boat-shaped hospital for new Dubai-style Tunisia Economic City
Arts and Entertainment
music
Life and Style
tech
Extras
indybest
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Life and Style
food + drink
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
News
i100
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Arts and Entertainment
film
News
news
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Helpdesk Analyst / 1st Line Application Support Analyst

£18000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

Data Analyst / Marketing Database Analyst

£24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established and growing IT Consultancy fir...

IT Systems Manager

£40000 - £45000 per annum + pension, healthcare,25 days: Ashdown Group: An est...

Science Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Science Supply Teacher position...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style