Letter: It's time to let the competition take off

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The Independent Online
Sir: Your Commentary (16 July) brought much-needed balance and common sense to an issue too often clouded by self-interest and technical jargon.

Unlike many commentators, you go to the heart of the problem. The UK has an excellent air transport policy. It is nothing revolutionary, merely releasing the captive passengers of high-cost oligopolies and giving them sovereignty. And it works: new-generation airlines, such as Virgin Atlantic and British Midland, bring down the fares and deliver new standards of quality so high that they out-perform their old-generation competitors, spurring them to product and efficiency improvements.

But this excellent policy is completely undermined by the present system of airport slot allocation, which is capable of crippling any new competitors it cannot exclude altogether. Our Johannesburg service would have broken the duo

poly of BA and South African Airways for the first time. It would have brought a new range of choices for passengers and a long-overdue reduction in fares. But the slots we were allocated at Heathrow this winter would have resulted in a schedule hopelessly inconvenient for our passengers, with no promises at all for any slots next summer.

Here is the clearest possible example of precisely the problem you define; British aviation policy is indeed being undermined by Heathrow's archaic slot arrangements, a legacy of the airlines' anti-competitive past. Slots at Heathrow are based on the simple principle that if an airline enjoys a privilege this year, it has first claim for it the next year and the next and the next, for ever and ever, generation after generation.

So by privatising BA and leaving it with 90 per cent of all British long-haul slots out of Heathrow for ever, competition ceases. It doesn't matter if the services were of a higher quality and increased customer satisfaction. The only thing that does matter is that that airline developed at a time, many years ago, when the Government believed in a single, state-owned airline industry.

The Government must abolish the concept of grandfather rights. If after, say, 10 years someone else can offer a better service, an airline should lose its right to operate. The dead hand of closed shops, monopoly and protectionism has been removed from most of British industry. It is high time to bring aviation up to date.

Yours sincerely,

RICHARD BRANSON

Chairman

Virgin Group of Companies

London, W8

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