Sir Richard Branson: IAG buying Aer Lingus is absolutely wrong

Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic, has hit out at rival International Airlines Group, claiming it is “absolutely wrong” the British Airways owner is buying Are Lingus.

 The billionaire said the Irish flag carrier should remain as an “independent competitor” to BA.

He added that the €1.4bn (£1bn) deal with IAG should “not be allowed”, although he admitted that Virgin Atlantic had also examined buying Aer Lingus.

IAG, which also owns Spansih airline Iberia, is seeking to bolster its transatlantic operations with the purchase of Aer Lingus, enabling it to ramp-up competition with Virgin Atlantic, The Telegraph reports.

Christoph Mueller, Aer Lingus’ former chief executive who stepped down earlier this year to take the top job at Malaysia Airlines, turned Dublin into an important hub for the Irish airline’s lucrative flights to North America.

“I think it’s absolutely wrong,” said Sir Richard. “I find it incredible that the competition authorities allow such things to happen.

“As much as possible, airlines like Aer Lingus should remain independent competitors of British Airways [and] not be allowed to merge.

“You’re taking away valuable competition on the Irish routes by allowing BA to take them over.”

Asked whether Virgin Atlantic – which is 51pc owned by Virgin Group, with the rest held by US airline Delta – had looked at buying Aer Lingus, Sir Richard added: “We have considered it.”

Virgin partnered with Aer Lingus to operate a short-haul operation in Britain called Little Red. However, the airline announced last year that it would scrap the venture after it struggled to fill seats and faced strong compeition from BA.

The IAG deal will give Virgin Atlantic’s rival more sought-after slots at Heathrow. Sir Richard, who has regularly clashed with IAG chief executive Willie Walsh, said that “they’ve got far too many slots anyway. If it was any other industry they would have been broken up by now.”

“The competition authorities should look very closely at the Aer Lingus deal. It’s just giving BA more power, more slots,” Sir Richard added.

Heathrow could be thrust into the spotlight this summer when the Airports Commission publishes its report on airport expansion in the South East.