Branson named by OFT in cartel trial

VIRGIN Atlantic owner Sir Richard Branson has been named during opening statements made to a London court yesterday over his airline’s involvement with British Airways (BA) in price-fixing allegations made by the Office of Fair Trading (OFT).

Prosecutor Richard Latham QC told a jury at the Southwark Crown Court that Branson had asked senior executive William Boulter to “sound out” his contact at BA over making changes to fuel surcharges.

Latham said: “Branson wanted Boulter to sound out his contact – so he knew that Boulter had a contact at British Airways – to see if they would follow Virgin if Virgin was to lead a variable passenger fuel surcharge.”

Through his opening statement, Latham presented to the court a number of emails and telephone conversations detailing agreements made by executives at both airlines to hike passenger charges.

BA head of sales Andrew Crawley, along with former executives Iain Burns, Alan Burnett and Martin George have all pleaded “not guilty” to cartel charges and price-fixing allegations.

Virgin’s chief executive Steve Ridgway and executives Boulter and Paul Moore are also named as having colluded with BA to fix fuel surcharges.

Meanwhile, BA continues its dispute with Unite, the union representing cabin crew, after Unite yesterday urged BA cabin crew to reject an offer made by the airline. If they reject it, there is a possibility of further strike action, although Unite said it would not announce strike dates “at this stage”.

The news comes as Europe’s airlines expressed relief yesterday after the European Commission vice-president Siim Kallas, said he would ease state aid rules to allow governments to provide financial support to the industry. But he warned airlines would face “maximum pressure” to compensate passengers stranded by the volcanic ash cloud.