Branson starts kicking BA in the crown jewels

Sir Richard Branson’s desire to buy BA’s Concorde fleet may be about saving our heritage, but embarrassing his rival is a more likely motivation, says George Pitcher

In a major breach of security, a prankster with a penchant for “doing anything for publicity” has caused intense embarrassment at the heart of one of our most cherished national institutions.

Yes, Sir Richard Branson’s bid to buy the Concorde fleet from British Airways is reported to have made some senior members of the airline’s family furious at such a breach of its security. Indeed, this security is said to have bordered on complacency.

The analogy with the royal family goes deeper. BA only rules the skies, with Concorde as its monarch, by an accident of birth. Had the Government not sold its Concorde birthright to its then national airline for &£1 per aircraft after its development in the late-Sixties, BA would not now enjoy dominion over supersonic flight.

But BA is adopting an easy-come, easy-go approach to Concorde. Acquiring the asset was easy enough, so getting rid of it should be simple too. Like some of the royals, if you take the privilege for granted, it is of little value to you.

It’s a difficult conundrum, deciding which is the greater asset to the nation – Concorde or the royal family. Both are uneconomic and out of date and both have growing doubts about their safety. Both are redolent of an era in which British supremacy was taken for granted.

That sort of arrogance is now slightly embarrassing. Who today would write the words “Great Britain”, rather than simply calling ourselves “Britain” or “the UK”? Yet, as recently as 30 years ago, we were proud to call ourselves “Great”, with symbols such as the royals and Concorde to represent our post-imperial stature.

It is the fate of such symbols to fall victim to common gatecrashers at trashy parties, or to be the target of opportunistic and derisory takeover bids from bearded entrepreneurs from the post-colonial age. One is reminded of the duke’s immaculate limousine, now sold into the sheepskin-coated, second-hand car trade.

For once, I think we should listen to a conservative voice and consider what we may be squandering. I flew Concorde several times in the Eighties, when other people were paying, on both chartered and scheduled flights.

I remember one night flight from New York to Bordeaux, during which there was scarcely time to have a decent dinner before we were touching down in France.

For anyone who has experienced this Atlantic-shrinking phenomenon, the question is bound to arise: are we really to assume that, in the age of growing globalisation at the start of the third millennium, the shortest route between Europe and North America is about to extend from three hours to more than six hours?

Perhaps it’s testament to the exponential growth of information technology that we no longer appear to consider the speed and ease with which we traverse the globe to be a benchmark for human progress.

If that is so, while it may not be one of the most important considerations, it is nevertheless worth noting that BA’s recent television ad campaign was built on the premise that there is no adequate technological substitution for face-to-face contact in the business world.

The mothballing of Concorde suggests that BA believes we should still fly around the world to meet one another, rather than rely on e-mail, but it doesn’t matter how long we take to get there. Only a tiny proportion of business travellers, admittedly, would fly Concorde, but it was always its symbolic value as a world-shrinker that was said to be its true worth to BA.

That is a heritage point. If the world’s favourite airline is not also the world’s fastest airline (notwithstanding that Air France flew Concordes too), then its dominion over the world’s favourite routes looks distinctly challengeable.

It may be that Branson had the heritage issue in mind when he first bid &£5 for BA’s Concorde fleet and latterly &£5m for it (is this, incidentally, the biggest incremental increase in a takeover offer in corporate history?).

The fact that Branson alternatively suggests a trust, with multi-ownership of Concorde for special occasions, indicates that he is at least partly motivated by the heritage issue. But one can’t help believing that the &£5 offer exposes a desire also to embarrass BA – Branson wants to show the world that, while BA doesn’t want Concorde, it doesn’t want anyone else to have it either (especially not a competitor).

What would really expose Branson’s motives would be for BA to call Branson’s bluff, by selling him the Concordes at &£1m a piece. If Branson could make them competitive on BA’s routes, then BA would be in trouble – not only with its customers, but also with its shareholders, for being so crass with a valuable asset.

But BA must know that Branson can’t do that, having lived with Concorde’s lack of economies for so long. So it’s a bluff worth calling – Concorde might, after all, ruin Branson. But BA won’t do that – demonstrating that Concorde is ultimately less about commerce than about brand value.

Branson knows all about the power of irrational brand values over empirical business models. And Concorde is a brand value that BA can ill-afford to lose and one that Branson covets.

I just wish Branson would offer a fiver for the royal family.

George Pitcher is a partner at communications management consultancy Luther Pendragon

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