Virgin picks US exec as its new airline leader

 
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VIRGIN Atlantic has hired American Airlines executive Craig Kreeger as its new chief executive, replacing Steve Ridgway at the carrier from 1 February.

Kreeger, who has beaten internal candidate Julie Southern to the top job, joins the firm as it navigates a new tie-up with US giant Delta Air Lines.

The search for Ridgway’s replacement has taken over a year. The current chief executive will retire from the airline at the end of February after a 27-year-career with Virgin Atlantic.

Sir Richard Branson, who owns 51 per cent of the firm, said yesterday Kreeger was taking the helm at a “dynamic and challenging time for our airline”.

“We believe Craig has the experience and passion to drive Virgin Atlantic forward and capitalise on the opportunities created by our new venture with Delta Airlines,” he said in a statement.

Virgin Atlantic announced last month that Delta had spent £223m buying Singapore Airlines’ 49 per cent stake, and the pair plan to link up on lucrative transatlantic routes, pending antitrust clearance.

The tie-up was announced by Southern, and it is thought she will remain at the firm to oversee the partnership.

The airline is also set to launch its maiden short-haul routes, flying to Manchester and Scotland from spring.

“An external appointment was going to be necessary if the airline were to take a different course,” said Espirito Santo analyst Gerald Khoo.

PROFILE: CRAIG KREEGER

CRAIG Kreeger has many assets on his CV that will help him run Sir Richard Branson’s airline.

His most recent job title at American Airlines was “senior vice president – customer”, meaning he is already attuned to Virgin’s aim to wow its passengers.

He has also spent six years working for the US carrier in London, keeping an eye on sales and getting to grips with the complex workings of Heathrow Airport. This gives him a head-start as Virgin jostles for space at the close-to-capacity hub.

His 27-year American Airlines career also involved a spell in the finance office overseeing “yield management” – not a bad skillset for a man taking over an airline that lost £80m in the year to February 2012.

And, possibly most satisfying for Sir Richard, Kreeger has the inside track on how American Airlines forged its transatlantic tie-up with bitter rival British Airways. This feat is something Virgin hopes to replicate with its new partner Delta.

The economics graduate is “intimately familiar with how American looks at its alliances”, said Robert Mann, a New York-based airline consultant. “So on that basis, it’s a lot of strategic information that's available not only to Virgin Atlantic but potentially to Delta.”

American boss Tom Horton yesterday called Kreeger “a driving force at American” who helped make the firm more innovative.

Kreeger was not available for comment yesterday, but said in a statement: “ I have been competing with [Virgin] for many years but have always admired its laser focus on its people, its products and its customers.”