Belfast Telegraph

There is no feud like an old feud in aviation sector

There's no feud like an aviation feud. Willie Walsh, the boss of British Airways owner International Airways Group (IAG), has locked horns with Virgin boss Richard Branson.

They were rival suitors for struggling regional carrier BMI. Parent Lufthansa has officially accepted IAG's offer, the pair announcing a binding agreement yesterday in the corporate equivalent of an engagement notice in The Times.

The sealing of their deal has left Mr Branson nursing hurt feelings, to say the least.

The £172.5m agreement, if it is approved by competition authorities, gives IAG control of 53% of Heathrow's landing slots.

It has a total of 60 aircraft serving three divisions, BMI Mainline - the unit BA is most interested in - BMI Regional and BMI Baby.

BMI Mainline flies 27 Airbus aircraft to 34 destinations in the UK, Europe, Middle East and Africa. It also operates flights to Aberdeen, Belfast City, Dublin, Edinburgh and Manchester. It has two Airbus A330 aircraft, seven A321s, seven A320s and 11 A319s.

Mr Branson, whose airline also had designs on BMI's landing slots, said: "BA is already dominant at Heathrow and their removal of BMI just tightens their stranglehold at the world's busiest international airport.

"We will fight this monopoly every step of the way as we think it is bad for the consumer, bad for the industry and bad for Britain."

Lapsing into more colourful language, the famous entrepreneur said: "This deal simply cuts consumer choice and screws the travelling public." But, speaking to this newspaper, Irishman Willie Walsh effectively said Virgin was not a suitable husband for BMI.

"You've got to laugh... If we didn't acquire it the most realistic option would have been that BMI would be shut down and its slots sold to other airlines around the world," he said.

"Virgin has shown no interest in domestic or regional flights or in flying to Belfast or any other regional airport. In terms of Northern Ireland and Belfast, the only option to retain the link to Heathrow was by us acquiring BMI."

Mr Branson will take his objections to the European Commission competition authority, which has previously broken up engagements between airlines operating in the same country, including Ryanair and Aer Lingus in the Republic.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Walsh and Ryanair head Michael O'Leary have enjoyed an intense rivalry. But the duo put any animosity to one side last month to campaign against air passenger duty in the UK.

It may take an even greater mutual interest in the future to enable Messrs Branson and Walsh to play the happy couple.

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