A bust-up between British Airways and trades unionists is a top business story in the UK this morning. What makes the dispute cat nip for news journalists is its political dimension. The ruling Labour Party and the opposition Tories are neck-and-neck in the polls as they head towards an anticipated May 6 general election. Looming strikes – and ministers’ responses to them – are therefore seen as potentially swaying voters.
EADS was meant to be the model European company. That long ago ceased to be the case, unless the model it was highlighting was a feeble, if not to say broken, one.
But the company still holds up a mirror to the continent and the flurry of news in recent days makes uncomfortable reading for European business.
My FT column this week is on Richard Branson and space commercialisation.
Richard Branson is an ambitious man. Ask him about the potential for his Virgin Galactic business – as I did at the unveiling of his space capsule in the Mojave desert in California on Monday – and he does not hold back.
Virgin Galactic has ordered five vehicles that can take six passengers into sub-orbital flight about 110km above the earth’s surface at a time. But Sir Richard thinks that, in 10 years’ time, it could have 40 of the six-passenger craft flying twice a day each.
Add one more item to the advantages of owning a private jet, or having access to one. The New York Times points out that Steve Jobs, chief executive of Apple, could have registered on several waiting lists for liver transplants around the US because he was able to fly on short notice to any city.
In practice, we do not know why Mr Jobs ended up having a liver transplant in Tennessee – or indeed why he had one at all, although it presumably relates to the bout of pancreatic cancer for which he had surgery in 2004. Nor do we know how he got to Tennessee from California.
My column in the FT on Thursday is about luxury and premium good in the downturn:
Well, I realise this is old hat for some but it is new to me.
I am writing this 35,000 feet up in the air on an American Airlines flight from San Francisco to New York, thanks to the inflight internet connection (which costs $12.95). Compared to the $10 the cabin crew are charging for a sandwich, I do not think that is bad.
These are very tough times for the business jet industry. The now infamous trip by the heads of the Detroit big three to Washington on board corporate jets to plead for cash from the US government has caused a backlash against private travel.
Here comes a fightback: two groups involved in US business aviation have now launched a campaign to improve the industry’s image. The campaign is called “No plane. No gain” and even has its own web site.
Even an irrepressible optimist sometimes get repressed. I feel a bit sad at the departure of Vern Raburn as chief executive of Eclipse, the very light jet maker that has not yet fulfilled his hopes of transforming air travel.
Mr Raburn has paid the price for the fact that it has proved much harder than he promised to built a cheap, snap-together small jet that would be used for air taxi services and bought as an alternative to small turbo-prop aircraft.
As trailed, I have written my FT column this week on the F-22 fighter and whether it is worth the money. I conclude that the current US position – to buy a limited number and refuse to sell others to its allies – is militarily questionable and financially crazy. You can read it here and comment below.
Overheard on the Farnborough to London train:
A group of American defence contractors talking about a contract that was delayed by a glitch. One executive, regretfully, as if it would be the last resort: “We may have to tell the Brits about it.”
Well, that was a first for me. I don’t think I have attended a media briefing on an aircraft before, and certainly not a US Air Force one.
The aircraft in question was a C-130J Super Hercules – one of those big transport aircraft that you see often in war zones, or involved in relief efforts. This one had just returned from a tour in Iraq and has previously operated in Afghanistan.
The beast was on the ground at the Farnborough Air Show but that did not detract from the oddity of sitting on one of the red canvas seats lined along the sides of the aircraft to hear about the aircraft and its deployment.
The rear cargo door was open so, although we were in fact at zero altitude, it felt curiously as if we were about to be tipped out of the back in parachutes.
Well, the star of the show was certainly the star of the show. In time-honoured tradition, I have just been standing on a balcony at the Farnborough air show, with plugs in my ears, watching fighter aircraft doing manoevres.
This year’s Farnborough highlight was the F-22, the world’s best - and most expensive – fighter aircraft. It is a stealth fighter made by Lockheed Martin and Boeing, with Pratt and Whitney supplying the engines and the only air force that has them is the US one. Foreign governments are not allowed to buy them.
It does feel odd to be watching the beauty and balletic elegance of fighter jets at air shows, given that their mission in life is to destroy things. In the F-22′s case, it does not do much bombing of ground targets but could beat any other aircraft in a fight.
However, the F-22 is unquestionably stunning to watch. Its most surprising trait, for an aircraft that can travel at Mach 2 and launch missiles at supersonic speed, is that it can come to a virtual halt in the sky.
The United Arab Emirates are becoming the go-too place for western, and particularly US companies, that need a bit of a boost amid financial turmoil.
I am at the Farnborough Air Show today and started my day listening to Scott Carson, the head of Boeing’s commercial aircraft division, making a brave case that his industry would prosper despite high oil prices, environmental pressures etc, delays to Boeing’s new 787 aircraft etc.
However, it was only at the end of the presentation when things definitively perked up. That was when Jim McNerney, Mr Carson’s boss, walked on stage at the media centre with Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al-Maktoum, the son of the former Emir of Dubai, to announce an order for 50 of Boeing’s next-generation 737s.
This morning’s Wall Street Journal story on Martin Broughton, chairman of British Airways, predicting that US airlines will soon start lobbying for the relaxation of foreign ownership rules has the ring of truth to me.
The reason is that one senior executive of a US airline said precisely that to me recently (off the record). He said that he could no longer see the point of the US law barring a foreign airline from owning more than 25 per cent of a US one and would not object to it being abolished.