Battle of the Airlines: Mysterious calls warned of delays and overbooking: Martyn Gregory reports on BA's 'dirty tricks' campaign, which he uncovered as producer/director of Thames Television's This Week programme

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The Independent Online
AS THE operations director of an international database marketing company, Yvonne Parsons is a valuable airline customer. She made 28 upper class trips on Virgin last year. Her company's business is worth tens of thousands of pounds to Virgin, writes Martyn Gregory.

While in New York in July 1991 Ms Parsons, who lives in West Sussex, was phoned by 'Bonnie' from Virgin: her flight to London could be delayed, would she like to change to BA? She rejected the offer and phoned Virgin the next day. Virgin replied: 'We haven't any record of you being called. There is no delay. There is no Bonnie.' Ms Parsons was puzzled.

In September, again in New York, 'Larry' from Virgin phoned to say Ms Parsons' seat in non-smoking could not be guaranteed. Because she is asthmatic, Ms Parsons was irritated. She was offered a first class ticket on BA, but declined. The following day she phoned Virgin to see if anything had changed. Virgin had no record of any conversation with her or of any 'Larry'.

The following month 'Marie Anne' from Virgin wrote to say her flight to London was overbooked. Would she accept a Concorde flight in compensation? When Ms Parsons phoned back to respond, Virgin told her the original flight was not overbooked and, again, they had no record of the call.

'I was livid,' she recalls. 'Virgin were fine at 35,000ft but the company had become a complete shambles an the ground.'

She abandoned Virgin and started flying with American carriers.

At the beginning of last year Ms Parsons gave Virgin a final chance. She booked her outward flight from London to New York. Once again she was called by Virgin - overbooked again but would she like to change to . . . She slammmed the phone down and instantly instructed her travel agent never to book her on Virgin again.

Two weeks later, she watched This Week's exposure of BA's dirty tricks campaign on ITV.

'As I watched the programme it dawned on me that I must have been the victim of an elaborate and disgraceful deception carried out by British Airways.'

'I know that none of the people who phoned me were actually from Virgin - its only logical to assume that, as it was always a BA ticket that I was offered, it must have been BA employees impersonating Virgin staff.'

Ms Parsons wrote a detailed account of her experience to Richard Branson which later became an affidavit.

As Connecticut businessman, James Sorrentino, alighted from a Frankfurt flight in February he was paged by Airport Information. He expected to be given an urgent message. Instead he was accosted by two BA representatives who tried to get him to switch to BA.

Mr Sorrentino was furious. 'I found the BA woman arrogant and harassing. I found BA's attitude shocking and wrote to complain about this unpleasant experience.'

A rock musician rushing for a regular flight to the US found BA staff offering him a business class ticket at an economy fare. They said they knew him as a Virgin regular. 'I found it really spooky to think that they had been watching me. I refused that offer as well as another approach in LA a few months later.'

(Photograph omitted)