UK: Backlash to Animal Testing Flight Ban Rattles British Airways

Publisher Name: 
The Guardian

To some, it is a rare
example of a multinational company taking a principled stance on a
moral issue. But to others, it amounts to a spineless surrender at the
slightest hint of trouble.

British
Airways' decision to stop carrying animals bound for scientific
experimentation, which was revealed in the Guardian last week, has
delighted anti-vivisection activists who highlight the suffering of
mice, monkeys and guinea pigs in transit for laboratories.

However, BA's senior management have been rattled by a commercial and political backlash over the issue.

The
Guardian has learned that BA's biggest British corporate customer,
Glaxo SmithKline, which spends millions of pounds every year on staff
travel, has lodged protests at the highest level about the airline's
stance.

Glaxo
points out that every medicine developed in Britain is required, by
law, to be tested on animals. BA's policy emerged in the middle of a
sensitive pricing round for Glaxo's latest contract to fly thousands of
employees every year between London and its Philadelphia operational
base.

BA's
chairman, Martin Broughton, admitted that discontent among corporate
clients was taken seriously by the airline - just as seriously, in
fact, as representations from the science minister, Lord Sainsbury. But
Mr Broughton was unrepentant: "What it comes down to is that live
animals are not the sort of business we want to chase. We're not here,
as an airline, to do business because somebody else thinks we ought
to."

Speaking
in China at the launch of a new BA route to Shanghai, Mr Broughton
maintained that the airline's policy was purely commercial, rather than
a moral decision: "In cargo generally, you want to make life as easy as
you can. Live animals are tricky."

A
different explanation was on offer when the Guardian tackled BA's chief
executive, Rod Eddington, about the issue the following day.

Mr
Eddington claimed BA was enforcing an anti-animal experimentation
policy agreed by members of Iata, the international airlines'
organisation: "It is an Iata issue. We are simply upholding an Iata
policy."

However,
a spokeswoman at Iata's European headquarters in Geneva later flatly
contradicted him: "Iata do not have a policy on this issue at all."

BA's
sensitivity is evident. GlaxoSmithKline is not alone - other big
corporate clients, including AstraZeneca, are similarly affronted. A
spokesman for the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry
said: "We have expressed our concerns to BA through a variety of formal
and informal channels ... Their decision is not helping vital and
necessary medical research going ahead."

Speaking
privately, BA executives said the airline has long had a policy against
carrying animals for experimentation - but it was only sporadically
enforced until recently. The airline claims to have been worried by the
prospect of violent attacks on its staff by extreme groups such as
Gateway to Hell. Margaret Ewing, the finance director of airports group
BAA, recently had her car vandalised. A message was sprayed on a nearby
wall reading: "You are now a target."

BA's
chairman said animal experimentation had yet to be discussed around the
airline's boardroom table. When it is raised, there could be a robust
debate: BA's board includes Martin Read, a director of Boots - which
sells thousands of medicines tested on animals. Another BA director,
Ashok Ganguly, has a scientific background and is a fellow of the Royal
Society of Chemistry.

Critics
point to inconsistencies in BA's approach. Despite Mr Broughton's
insistence that animals were "tricky", the airline remains happy to
carry less controversial live cargo.

Mr Broughton said: "If somebody wanted us to carry a racehorse from London to Australia, that would be profitable."

The
chairman's fondness for the equine world is well known: he is a
director of the British Horseracing Board and he left BA's Shanghai
event early to make it back to Britain for the Derby.

In
another twist, the Guardian established that BA intends to defy animal
rights protesters by continuing to carry the frozen embryos of mice
bound for laboratories - a method of carriage which, according to drugs
companies, is as common as transporting animals alive. There is little
sign of a rethink by BA, in spite of pleading from the government,
which has been unstinting in its backing for animal testing - so
supportive that one company, Huntingdon Life Sciences, was given
banking facilities at the Bank of England when threats prompted the
withdrawal of commercial facilities.

Drugs
companies insist that BA amounts to a hollow victory for animal rights
protesters, as it could simply mean longer journeys for animals on
indirect routes served by second-tier cargo airlines with lower welfare
standards.

Glaxo's
head of animal ethics, Tim Morris, was tight-lipped on the subject:
"Anybody who sees what animal extremists do would understand it would
be totally unreasonable for us to talk about our suppliers in this
context."

But
he held out an olive branch to the airline by insisting that
pharmaceutical companies would avoid subjecting BA to commercial
bullying.

"It
would be inappropriate for us to consider economic boycotts as that
would be stooping to the level of the activists who target us," he
said.

AMP Section Name:Transportation