Virgin Atlantic's chief Sir Richard Branson has accused British Airways of massaging its passenger figures to boost its chances of being accorded the regulatory approval for a tie-up with American Airlines.
The row between Sir Branson and BA CEO Willie Walsh take a nettlesome turn with this accusation. Sir Richard has said that BA and American Airlines deliberately excluded six million passengers to window dress numbers to depict a lower market share of the transatlantic market.
Branson said that figures filed by the two airlines with the US Department for Transportation asking for approval for anti-trust immunity excluded passengers booking directly on their websites, or those transferring from other flights. This, says Branson, allows them to reduce their market share on the Heathrow-US sector from 62 per cent to 43.6 per cent.
Branson said this doctoring masks the two airline's "true" share between Heathrow and New York JFK, which was 63 per cent, and not 52 per cent as reported.
Sir Richard said, "BA said our figures were erroneous. American Airlines accused us of being fact-free. What we have found is they have missed out six million passengers." He was speaking at the launch of his £3 million "No way BA/AA" campaign.
Branson unveiled the slogan on an Airbus A340-600, and it will be replicated across the Virgin Atlantic fleet as part of its lobbying and advertising campaign.
Branson is at loggerheads with BA's planned tie-up, which has aggravated bad blood between the two airlines. It was triggered by Virgin's whistle-blowing over price-fixing on fuel surcharges, which landed BA with a £350 million bill.
The bad blood was evident after BA's Willie Walsh started referring to Virgin Atlantic's founder as '''Honest' Richard Branson'', after the latter was reported as saying that "BA has improved as an airline as a result of Virgin Atlantic keeping them honest". Branson says Walsh is trying to personalise the statement so that it ''becomes a beauty contest between Richard Branson and Willie Walsh''.
Walsh hit back at Sir Branson's accusation about window dressing passenger numbers by saying that Branson was quoting passenger figures no regulator used, instead of the industry-recognised "marketing information data transfer" numbers.
"The figures we quote are the figures the regulators want to look at," Walsh said.
"The competition authorities will decide. I am clear they are right."