LONDON: British swimmer Lewis Gordon Pugh on Sunday became the first person without protective gear to endure the waters of the North Pole, the coldest in which a human has voluntarily swum and survived.

An ambience not dissimilar to that now experienced by Sir Richard Branson in his attempt to launch new US airline franchise, Virgin America.

Branson, who received the thumbs up for VA's launch on July 11, is at one with the stalwart (if crazy) Pugh - in that he too is experiencing a chill akin to the minus 1.8C (28.7F) water temperature in which the swimmer achieved his feat.

The icy currents are stirred by a small group of US politicos - most prominently James Oberstar, head of the House transportation committee - who object to the opening-up of the nation's air-lanes to European competitors.

The reciprocal deal, recently agreed with the European Union, has agitated protectionists who cite potential threats to US jobs and national security.

The airline's inaugural flights are scheduled to take off August 8 from Los Angeles and New York's JFK International Airport, both arriving at around the same time that morning at VA's San Francisco hub.

But with the political climate chillier than an Arctic icehole, publicity-junkie Branson has taken an unprecedented step. To absent himself from the razzamatazz of the twin inaugural landings.

But in the current frosty atmosphere, Branson's usual circus antics would be a red rag to the Congressional bull, fuelling hostility to the so-called 'open skies' treaty.

Concerned EU officials are currently seeking assurances from their stateside opposite numbers that the liberalisation process is not about to sink in the Arctic ocean.

Oberstar, meantime, insists his statements merely clarify US law and that they "should not prevent" the open skies deal.

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by WARC staff