The cut-price carrier easyJet has served a writ against British Airways, claiming that it is cross-subsidising Go, its new low-price airline and that the tactic is intended to put easyJet out of business.
Cross-subsidy is the established company's weapon against the innovative talents of the newcomer. The difficulty in defining where it is illegal does not detract from the frustration we feel when big business birds of prey swoop on smaller and nimbler rivals So the anger of small carriers which have liberated travellers from British Airways' expense-account fare structures is understandable.
Under this kind of pressure, companies are increasingly inclined to throw themselves on the mercy of the public and present their plight as a moral crusade. "Hey," says someone in the PR nether regions, "we're the little guy. Our customers are the little guys. We're all in this together. Like Ben and Jerry said."
This snuggly view of capitalism has led easyJet to publish bathetic full- page newspaper ads reproducing letters from outraged passengers. (Their outrage was nourished by the prospect of winning free tickets, which de- gilts the gingerbread a little.) Eight year-old Roseanna writes, "My daddy is always moaning about big business forcing the little man out of business ..." A (presumably fully grown) Mr Shattock from Peterborough is less sophisticated: "What's the difference between a BA flight and a Go flight? One screws customers while the other screws competitors."
At this point, I am overcome by a sudden desire never to fly easyJet again. It is a fine line between companies informing their customers why they feel threatened by cross-subsidy and them turning into undignified whingers. The Independent has made its case against predatory pricing in the face of cost-cutting by Rupert Murdoch. But enterprises should be wary of mistaking the loyalty customers bear a business which delivers a good product at a sound price for the notion that they should love the company like a brother.
Not that easyJet is alone in trying to reinvent the relation between producer and customer as an affair of the heart. "The weather is brought to you by Powergen," murmurs a voice after the evening news. To which we're supposed to respond, "That's nice of them", rather than enquiring too closely into the fatness of their executive cats.
But consumers are not fools. We know that easyJet is in business to make a profit. If the prices are low and the planes leave on time, we don't begrudge it. Besides, there is an iron law which states that companies which try to garb their commercial aims in altruistic language invariably come a cropper. Ben and Jerry's promise that a brand of their ice-cream helped indigenous rainforest workers was met by protests that it wasn't helping them enough.
Rupert Murdoch rashly promised that exposure to his Star TV channel would topple dictatorships. Since then, he has had to expend a lot of effort correcting this impression with the Chinese. The result is the cancellation of Chris Patten's memoirs. A little morality in business goes a long way. A little moralising goes even further.Reuse content