It was 20 years ago today

Richard Branson would recognise the tactics used by the British Council

The story of how the British Council in Azerbaijan is using ‘client poaching‘ business practices to compete with legitimate British business reminds us of the “dirty tricks” story from 20 years ago, involving Britain’s most famous entrepreneur and the established flag-bearer in the airline industry, British Airways.


BA’s ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against British rivals Virgin


In the early 1990’s British Airway’s Helpline team at Gatwick airport, usually responsible for ‘meeting and greeting’ passengers as they transferred between airlines and giving special help to elderly passengers, were called to a secret meeting held 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’.

‘Helpliners’, the friendly customer service face of British Airways, would covertly tap into computer systems at Gatwick Airport to track late running Virgin flights. They would then pop a white carnation into their smart uniforms and go  ‘passenger poaching’ – talking customers in the terminal into transfering to a BA flight, usually targeting Virgin’s more profitable service to New York.The industrial espionage operation was then taken up a notch, when BA staff hacked into Virgin databases in order to get Upper Class passenger contact details for BA sales calls. Furthermore, as the BA-Virgin rivalry at Gatwick intensified, BA hired a PR consultant to undermine Richard Branson’s reputation in the City.

When the commercial dirty tricks campaign was discovered, Richard Branson said on ITN news 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.”

The actual result: BA apologised “unreservedly” for the “dirty tricks” campaign against Virgin Atlantic, and agreed to pay damages of £500,000 to Virgin boss Richard Branson and £110,000 to his airline, as well as incurring legal costs of up to £3m.


We can just imagine the scene at BC HQ when reviewing its finances:

The British Council doesn’t make money helping old relics like arts, culture and British identity. From now on….

Further Reading

Gregory, Martyn (2000) Dirty Tricks, British Airways’ secret war against Virgin Atlantic (3rd Ed).,_Baron_King_of_Wartnaby

Leave a Reply