Virgin Atlantic chief executive takes his flight

THE CHIEF executive of Virgin Atlantic yesterday announced he would leave the airline after 11 years in charge.

Steve Ridgway will step down at the end of the year after leading the search to find a successor, Virgin said yesterday. City A.M. understands the 61-year-old has decided to retire in order to allow fresh leadership as Virgin Atlantic expands into new routes and launches a revamped fleet of planes.

Ridgway said: “I will be leaving the airline as it embarks on a new era of flying.” He told Sir Richard Branson, Virgin’s chairman, of his plans to step down earlier this year.

Branson paid tribute to Ridgway yesterday, saying: “Steve has been a close friend and confidant since the early days... He has been a hands-on, inspirational leader and has shaped the airline into the company it is today.”

Early contenders to replace Ridgway include chief operating officer Julie Southern, although the process to appoint a new boss will consider a number of internal and external candidates. The incoming CEO will be charged with returning the airline to profit after it reported an £80m loss last month.

Virgin Atlantic has been hit by increasing competition from British Airways, whose owner International Airlines Group launched a tie-up with American Airlines and beat Virgin to the purchase of Lufthansa’s BMI.

Ridgway, who joined Virgin in 1989 as managing director of the airline’s frequent flyer programme Freeway, took over as CEO in 2001. He has overseen recent expansions, including launching routes to Cancun and Vancouver as well as moving into short-haul flights to Manchester, with further applications to operate routes to Glasgow.

Branson said he would “be very much involved with the airline into next year and will doubtlessly be involved in other Virgin projects as we value his skills so highly”.

STEVE Ridgway’s start at Virgin Atlantic was far from orthodox, having worked for Miami-based boatbuilder Cougar Marine on Sir Richard Branson’s Challenger boats in the early eighties. The two took the record for crossing the North Atlantic by boat in 1986 and from there struck up a friendship that continues to this day.

Ridgway joined Virgin Atlantic in 1989, when the airline had just two jets, and became part of the management team in 1994 as the executive director of customer services before becoming managing director in 1998 and chief executive in 2001.

Since then he has been a vocal critic of successive governments’ refusals to expand UK airports, saying blocking a third runway at Heathrow was causing Britain to lose opportunities for international trade.

The 61-year-old, who owns the £13.5m St Moritz hotel on the north coast of Cornwall with his brother Hugh, is set to enter semi-retirement when he steps down next year.