BRITAIN will fall behind the rest of the world unless a “bold, brave” stance on airline growth is adopted by the government, Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson warned yesterday. Speaking at the launch of new Virgin Atlantic routes to Cancun and Moscow, Branson hit out at leaders who stand in the way of expansion at close-to-capacity Heathrow and impose steep taxes on air travel.
“What we ought to be talking about is wholesale expansion to Asia, to Africa, to South America, and options on routes that are not currently serviced,” he told reporters.
“But it’s impossible, and it’s been impossible for the last 15 years. Britain came to a full stop 15 years ago.”
“Millions of travellers across the world are going to other European cities rather than coming to the UK and that affects every single aspect of the UK. In time it will turn into a third world country – it’s that serious.”
Branson said that Virgin will participate in the coalition’s ongoing aviation review, but only if it reverses its “farcical” blanket ban on considering a third runway at Heathrow.
“If by some miracle they think Heathrow isn’t the answer, then we will go along with it. But all the experts think Heathrow is the answer, so I think it will be very surprising if it’s not,” he said.
Branson was speaking as Virgin Atlantic unveiled its latest bid to muscle in on BA’s dominance at Britain’s biggest airport, pledging to launch a new route to Moscow next year – but only if it can take over some of BA’s landing slots at the hub.
BA has been forced to sell 12 landing slots at Heathrow following competition concerns surrounding its takeover of BMI earlier in the year. Virgin said it will bid for all 12 slot pairs and use some of them to start flights to Moscow using new A330 planes from 2013.
“We will know by Christmas what routes we can fly,” Virgin Atlantic Airways chief executive Steve Ridgway told reporters. “The competition that we have provided to BA on the long-haul destinations, we can now do that on short haul.”
Virgin Atlantic’s head of North America, Chris Rossi, said the firm had been looking to fly to Moscow for 15 years, but had until now struggled to gain a toehold in the market.
In a separate development a group of influential backbench Conservative MPs will today make a stand against their party and call for two new runways to be built at Heathrow.
The report by the Free Enterprise Group says a third runway “would only provide a stopgap solution”.
“One solution is to grant planning permission for both a third and fourth runway at the same time, allowing Heathrow to upgrade itself to a truly world class hub,” the report says.