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.
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