Virgin's Branson sees hopeful economic signs
Chicago: British entrepreneur Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group of companies, said on Monday he sees positive signs for the global economy, but it is unclear whether the turnaround has traction.
"There have been some hopeful signs in the last six weeks, but I think the jury is still out to see whether that's self-sustaining or not," he told reporters in an interview.
Branson, president of Virgin Atlantic Airways, said that when the economy turns around, so will flagging demand for business travel.
The airline industry has been hard hit by weak demand as the economic recession erodes travel budgets. Branson forecast more casualties in the US airline industry as inefficient carriers stumble.
"I don't think I'll get into naming names, but one in particular of the US carriers ... I will be surprised if it is around in 18 months' time," he said.
He denounced as anti-competitive the mergers and alliances of major airlines that the leaders of some US carriers have proposed as a remedy to overcapacity.
"I'm not sure that carriers merging is actually a good idea. I think that, generally speaking, carriers should get on and compete with each other," Branson said.
"I think that the Department of Transportation needs to care more about the public and competition than trying to prop up a few inefficient carriers that should be allowed to die peacefully."
Earlier this month, Continental Airlines won government approval to join UAL Corp's United Airlines in the global Star Alliance. This gives Star Alliance members a competitive advantage on some international routes.
The UAL/Continental alliance has put new pressure on AMR Corp's American Airlines, British Airways and Spain's Iberia to win government antitrust immunity to form their own transatlantic alliance.
"I certainly don't expect it to be approved. It's altogether more anti-competitive," Branson said.
"If the new ... (US) government, who say that they believe in competition, really really believe in competition, there is no way that BA and American will be allowed to get together," he said.
Branson on Monday was visiting Oshkosh, Wisconsin, where Virgin Galactic, Branson's space tourism business, was set to unveil Virgin's Mothership to the general public.
On Tuesday, Branson was to fly for the first time aboard the aerospace vehicle, which is designed to carry a spacecraft to the proper altitude to begin suborbital flight. Only crew members have been aboard previous test flights.
About 300 people have paid or are paying the USD 200,000 fare for a seat aboard the first flights.