Before Sir Richard Branson’s airline went into operation in the UK, British Airways was the only airline from the United Kingdom serving long-haul routes to destinations in North America, the Caribbean and the Far East. It wasn’t until 1991 – almost 30 years ago – that Virgin Atlantic secured permission from BAA, the United Kingdom-based operator of Heathrow Airport, to operate from the area. The airline also gained access to some unused British Airways slots at Tokyo Narita courtesy of the CAA, a decision which the then chairman Lord King called a “confiscation of his company’s property”.
In the year to October 1993, Virgin Atlantic declared a loss of £9.3million. The decision to abolish the London Air Traffic Distribution Rules (TDRs) and to let Virgin Atlantic operate at Heathrow in competition with British Airways became the trigger for hostility between the two companies.
As Sir Richard and Virgin Atlantic tried to grow the company by attaining more airway slots – British Airways began what would later be known as the “dirty tricks” campaign.
This culminated in a court case which saw BA paying out almost £3.5million in legal costs, damages and fines, the proceeds of which Sir Richard reportedly shared with his staff.
As the BBC reported in 1993, Sir Richard had accumulated evidence of BA employees poaching Virgin customers and tampering with confidential company files.
Sir Richard opened up about this in a 2018 interview with Graham Bensinger.
He said: “So we had three or four planes after about two or three years, and British Airways launched what became famously known as ‘the dirty tricks campaign’.
“And it was a kneecapping job to try and put Virgin Atlantic out of business completely.
“We learned about what they were up to from people who worked for British Airways, who were really embarrassed to be working for a company that behaved in this way.
“They would have a team of people behind locked doors at British Airways who would be ringing up our passengers, pretending to be from Virgin Atlantic, telling passengers that Virgin flights were delayed and then switching them on to British Airways.”
Following the court case in 1993, British Airways apologised “unreservedly” having been dealt with what was at the time, the biggest libel damages in British history.
They paid £500,000 to Sir Richard and £110,000 to his airline, as well as incurring legal costs of up to £3million.
Sir Richard donated the compensation from the case to his staff as a “Christmas bonus”.
This wouldn’t stop the relentless competition between the two airlines, though.
In 1997, following British Airways’ announcement that it was to remove the Union Flag from its tail fins in favour of world images, Virgin introduced a Union Flag design on the winglets of its aircraft and changed the red dress on the Scarlet Lady on the nose of aircraft to the Union Flag with the tagline “Britain’s Flag Carrier”.
This was an apparent tongue-in-cheek challenge to British Airways’ traditional role as the UK’s flag carrier.
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In 2009, when British Airways went into financial trouble, Sir Richard warned the Government not to bail out his rivals and even said Virgin Atlantic were “standing by ready to take on their routes and runway slots at Heathrow if they get into serious trouble”.
As a result of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Virgin Atlantic asked for state aid to help save the company as flights were grounded.
When contacted by Express.co.uk, a Virgin Group spokesperson said: “The current global crisis is unprecedented, impacting families, livelihoods and businesses in a severe and unparalleled way – it’s an entirely different set of circumstances to those in 2009.
“The reality is that many airlines around the world, including Virgin Atlantic, now need government support and many have already received it.
“Virgin Atlantic’s support would be in the form of a commercial loan and it would be paid back.
“Virgin Atlantic has a long history of delighting its customers and offering much needed choice and competition that significantly benefits the UK economy.”