LONDON : Virgin Atlantic boss Richard Branson hailed signs of a recovery in the aviation industry as he announced plans to expand his airline with new aircraft, extra routes and 1,400 more staff.
“Following the last recession Virgin Atlantic had annual double digit growth from 1993-2000 and we aim to match this level in the next few years,” the British tycoon said.
“There are encouraging signs that the market, particularly the all-important business travel sector, is returning to health.”
Like other big airlines, Virgin Atlantic has endured a tough time in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist hijackings and a general slowdown in the global economy, with business bookings particularly hard hit.
Speaking about the terrorism threat, Branson said: “The security of airlines has always been good out of the UK and has improved dramatically in the US. I suspect that airlines are as safe a form a transport as there is.”
Virgin Atlantic, in which Singapore Airlines owns a 49 percent stake, will begin flying twice weekly from London Gatwick airport to Havana, Cuba and once a week to Nassau in the Bahamas from July 2005.
The airline is also increasing frequencies on US, Caribbean, Asian and Far East routes.
The new jobs will include 700 cabin crew and 70 flight-deck posts at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.
The airline said it would order two more Airbus A340-600 wide-body aircraft.
Virgin Atlantic said it also hoped to decide in a few months’ time whether to place an order of up to 30 wide-body planes with US giant Boeing for its 777 or the European Airbus consortium for its A340.
Branson also hopes to break into the tough domestic US aviation market early next year, while no-frills operation Virgin Blue has successfully taken on Qantas in its home market of Australia.
Virgin expects to begin talks soon over a deal to buy another 35 smaller aircraft for the low-cost operation in the United States, with the choice again between Airbus and Boeing.
News of Virgin Atlantic’s expansion comes just over a week after Branson signalled a possible retreat from low-cost aviation in Europe with an accord that could see Belgium-based Virgin Express gobbled up by SN Brussels Airlines.
The main shareholders of no-frills carrier Virgin Express, part of Branson’s group, and Belgium’s SN Brussels Airlines said they had signed a non-binding “letter of intent” paving the way to a merger.
Analysts said the deal would enable the billionaire businessman to concentrate on expanding the Virgin airline brand in the United States and Australia.