Branson ups the stakes in flight wars

Marion Dakers
VIRGIN Atlantic is hoping to break British Airways’ traditional dominance of UK short haul air travel, after being picked to take over a dozen slots at Heathrow Airport.

Virgin confirmed today that it will offer flights to Aberdeen and Edinburgh next year, using the slots that BA has been forced to give up on competition grounds.

A spokesperson said the new services will compete directly with BA on price and quality, though they will not be run on the same no-frills basis as budget carriers.

The firm has already conducted focus groups north of the border in a bid to target customers who would otherwise fly with BA.

“We have fought hard for the right to fly short haul and take a strong challenge to British Airways within these shores,” said chief executive Steve Ridgway.

“For 28 years both airlines have battled for customers all over the world and it has meant that British consumers have ultimately had some of the world’s best flying and lowest fares.”

The European Commission asked BA to offload capacity at Heathrow after it took over loss-making carrier BMI last year. It has now decided Virgin Atlantic should have priority to take all 12 slots on offer.

Virgin Atlantic, which made an unsuccessful bid for BMI, will finalise prices and plans for the other slots at the end of the month.

The airline had hoped to launch a service to Moscow using some of the capacity, but last month lost out to EasyJet in a fight for the right to fly there.

Virgin Group president Sir Richard Branson has met with Russian authorities to try to expand the number of services permitted between the two countries.

Virgin is also in talks with several potential partners to lease Airbus A320s for use on the new routes.

British Airways’ parent group IAG has more than 50 per cent of the take-off and landing slots at Heathrow. Before this deal, Virgin Atlantic had three per cent.

BA and the European Commission declined to comment yesterday. Aer Lingus, which had also expressed an interest in the Heathrow slots, said it is awaiting a copy of the Commission’s decision on the rankings.