Commercial air transport operators provide a unique kind of service. They should not be treated, in law, like companies that sell tickets for, say, theatre seats.

At no stage before, during or after a theatre performance do the audience find their seats collectively careering at nearly 300km/h along a short tarmac path in a three-wheeled vehicle that was not designed to operate on the ground, before being launched into the sky. Neither do theatre-goers contract to spend several hours in an artificially pressurised container traversing the troposphere at 750km/h before being aimed another small tarmac strip to impact with it at some 250km/h.

The inherent risks in using commercial air transport have never been better described than by Capt A G Lamplugh, an aviation insurer and former aviator. He argued: "Aviation is not in itself inherently dangerous, but to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect."

For this reason commercial air transport is the most heavily regulated business activity in the world outside nuclear power. But regulation does not produce safety; it just sets the boundaries for legally acceptable operating practices. It is an acknowledgement of the need for care, but it is not the care provider. The airline is.

That is why a carrier that can genuinely be defined as a "virtual airline" should be illegal in any region professing to care about high safety standards in public services. A virtual airline is not the same thing as a franchise carrier, which wears the livery and brand name of what is usually a large, highly visible airline - whose reputation is on the line if standards are not maintained. Due diligence across all aspects of the franchisee's operation is carried out, and all bucks stop with the chief executive of the franchiser.

To pursue the theatrical analogy, a virtual carrier may be nothing more than a ticket agency. This is more or less what Manx2 claims to be. It sells tickets for seats on aircraft for which it appears to consider it has no responsibility. Most of its passengers will assume Manx2 is an airline, even though information about the actual operator is available in the online booking process.

What really provides safety in an airline is unbroken lines of responsibility and control, a corporate ethos, and a set of company standard operating procedures. A ticket agency that contracts out its customers to three or four different operators all with different aircraft types cannot offer the standards that passengers expect when they purchase an airline ticket.

Source: Flight International