Sir Alex, meet Arsène. From now on, we're all the best of pals, and by the way he's your new boss." Just imagine if Manchester United were bought by Arsenal, and the managers, players and supporters of both teams were told that henceforth they were all on the same side. "Oh, and we're also phasing out the name Manchester United."
That scenario would be unthinkable on the football field, and it does not translate well to the even more bitter battleground of low-cost aviation. Which is why Barbara Cassani, chief executive of Go (and who plays Sir Alex Ferguson in this scenario), will soon find herself in Love.
As football fans know very well, there is nothing like a sworn enemy to raise team spirit. One secret of the success of easyJet and Go, both of which announced excellent financial results on Wednesday, is strong corporate morale. And each company's resolve has been bolstered by the presence, just 30 miles away, of an arch-rival. Loathing the very Tarmac your opponents planes are parked upon inspires greater enterprise.
The affection-buying power of cash has been mistrusted by everyone from Jane Austen and John Galsworthy to the Beatles. This weekend, though, something between £400m and £450m is apparently going to be enough for easyJet to buy the devotion of Go.
Within days, the feud between the two no-frills airlines will end. Go's Stansted staff will compliantly love, honour and obey the management of Luton-based easyJet. They will kiss, make up and cheerfully help the new owners to "migrate the brand" and dismantle Go. The anger that has sparked between the rivals since Go was a sketch on BA's drawing board will abate as a transfusion of cash flushes away the bad blood.
Or Will it? The trouble with harsh words is that they are not easy to unsay. The insults traded between the two airlines cannot be erased as easily as the soon-to-be-deleted Go brand. When Stelios Haji-Ioannou, the charismatic founder of easyJet, learnt of British Airways' plan to set up a low-cost operation he said: "Go has been given permission by BA to lose £29m." He was incensed that the dominant force in UK aviation was able to sponsor a subsidiary that could attack the rest of the field.
The telegraphic message "Stop BA Stop Go" soon appeared, emblazoned in orange, on an easyJet Boeing 737. Stelios took British Airways to court, citing unfair competition. (The case was abandoned less than a year ago – lucky lawyers.) Then he cooked up a scheme to scupper Go's first flight, buying seats on the debut departure for a group of his employees and giving away flights on easyJet to Go's first passengers.
Barbara claimed Stelios's appearance in an orange boiler suit brought Go far more publicity than it would otherwise have earned. She also asserted: "People don't feel comfortable with the orange brashness of easyJet." And when Go was voted best low-cost airline, she rented a poster site outside Luton airport on which to proclaim victory. For a year.
From The Irish benches, a surprise endorsement for Barbara came from Tim Jeans, the marketing director for Ryanair: "Go did the industry a favour," he said. "It was basically the Paddies and the Greeks playing at the low-fares game, before British Airways turned up and gave it some respectability."
Meanwhile, THE Greek Cypriot boss of easyJet claimed Go would "close in three years, having put its rivals out of business". Indeed, once the embryonic airline got going to Rome and Lisbon, AB Airlines and Debonair quickly disappeared. But easyJet is so healthy that it will consign Go to corporate oblivion by April next year, just before Go's fifth birthday, by bidding the better part of half a billion pounds for Bob Ayling's baby. You will recall that BA's directors were unimpressed with their chief executive's big idea, and sacked him. Almost as soon as his replacement, Rod Eddington, had taken off his jacket, he pledged to sell the unruly infant. The joke in aviation circles is that Rod should have sold the rest of the airline and kept Go.
So What will will the takeover mean for you? In the short term, you will not turn up for your Go flight from Bristol or Stansted or East Midlands to find that the plane has been spray-painted bright orange. Fares to and from Scotland and Spain, on which easyJet and Go compete directly, will go up a bit. But these will be balanced by the lower costs that come with larger scale, which should keep the lid on prices.
Buzz and Bmibaby will step in if they believe too much money is being made on a route – as will Ryanair, which insists it has a monopoly on the lowest air fares in Europe.
The Takeover will be mourned by Go's loyal passengers, particularly business travellers. They have been enjoying extras such as pre-assigned seats, and fast check-in for people carrying only hand luggage. This week Ray Webster – the chief executive of easyJet, alias Arsène Wenger – described such fripperies as "aspects of frills". You will be relieved to learn this is not the title of another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, but may be displeased that the aspects will expire.
Travellers also appreciate Barbara's airline "capping" peak fares, rather than letting them rise as far as the market will allow. When Go started flying to Nice, an unusual and vituperative row broke out between Go and easyJet about which airline had the highest, not the lowest, prices. Michael O'Leary of Ryanair said: "They're having a row over who had the highest low fares. Who cares?"
Some do. Yesterday I checked flights to Nice over the Jubilee holiday, and found a fare with easyJet from Luton of £455 return, while Go's highest was £309 – but no seats are available for the Friday or Saturday on Barbara's airline, which perhaps means the market has something to be said for it.
Aesthetically, THe takeover is bad news for anyone who prefers a classy image to a colour scheme that looks like a failed first-year graphic art project. The Go brand has been a marketing triumph, yet it is to be obliterated as permanently as poor old Trans World Airways, which invented the first-ever economy class 50 years ago this month but was rubbed out by American Airlines before it could celebrate the half-century of cheap flying.
Crucially: HOW do you solve a problem like Barbara? "There is only a need for one chief executive in the company," says Ray. Barbara has been offered an executive post, he insists, and "it is entirely up to her whether she pursues that or not". By way of "clarification", Barbara ripostes, "I have never been offered a role at easyJet." (For some reason, I am convinced that Stephen Byers must have played a part in this "misunderstanding", though no doubt in good faith.) Either way, both Ray and Barbara know there is no chance that she will salute the orange flag.
Neither is Barbara about to put her feet up, even with the handy £16m cheque that is in the post for her stake in Go. It will arrive along with a "non-compete" clause written into the severance contract, preventing her from starting up another low-cost airline in Europe for some years. So the only way out is Love.
Love Field, Dallas, was named after a pioneering aviator, Moss Lee Love. He died in a crash in 1913. Its second sad claim to fame is as the place that President John F Kennedy touched down in November 1963, just before his assassination. More recently, and cheerfully, it became the home of the original low-cost airline, Southwest, which took on the aviation establishment and won.
A larger-than-life character named Herb Kelleher was one of those people who are characterised by leadership scholars as a "How we can" rather than a "Why we can't". He set up what has become the safest and most successful airline in the world, using marketing tricks such as a frequent-flyer scheme where the instant reward was a bottle of Scotch whisky or vodka (today, the airline has a less rapid and rewarding scheme called Rapid Rewards, giving one free flight for every eight paid trips).
Last year, Herb took a back seat and handed over the corporate steering wheel to Colleen Barrett, his former secretary. She is widely regarded as something of a caretaker manager. Top people at Southwest are aware of what Barbara has achieved at Stansted, and will tempt her to swap Essex for Texas. A ranch in Dallas could suit her and the Southwest dynasty – and start a new chapter in the far-from-everyday story of no-frills folk.Reuse content