Virgin Atlantic will begin flying short-haul services between Manchester and Heathrow next March, going head-to-head with British Airways.

Manchester-Heathrow will be Virgin Atlantic’s first short-haul and domestic route, marking a major departure for a carrier which has only operated long-haul flights up until now.

However, Virgin America and Virgin Australia operate extensive regional networks.

The move signals “the start of a new network”, said the airline, with Manchester the first of a series of short-haul routes Virgin aims to operate from Heathrow if it succeeds in a bid for the landing slots surrendered by BA following its takeover of BMI in March.

Virgin Atlantic confirmed today that it will apply to the European Commission for all the ‘remedy slots’ at Heathrow to be awarded following the BMI takeover.

The carrier said it would use existing slots at Heathrow to operate to Manchester “to provide choice” for passengers, arguing “competition on this route has been neglected in the remedy process”.

Virgin also confirmed it is preparing an appeal against the EC’s decision to allow BA to acquire BMI. This can’t now be reversed, but Virgin hopes to persuade the EC to order BA to surrender more Heathrow slots.

A Virgin spokesman said: “We believe the decision was flawed for a number of reasons. The way in which the Commission ignored Manchester is part of the case we are building.

“We are confident our appeal will result in the Commission having to reassess its position.”

BA is set to operate more than 100 flights a week between Heathrow and Manchester next year, having operated in competition with BMI on the route until this summer.

Virgin said it would operate three flights a day from March 31 using Airbus A319 aircraft carrying about 120 passengers.

Chief executive Steve Ridgway said: “Flying between Heathrow and Manchester is just the start for Virgin Atlantic’s new short-haul operation.

“We have the means to connect thousands of passengers to our long-haul network as well as to destinations served by other carriers.

“Our service will provide strong competition to BA, keep fares low and give consumers a genuine choice of airline.”

Ridgway added: “Operating London to Manchester will provide an invaluable feed to our existing network. It is also the perfect introduction to short-haul flights for Virgin Atlantic.

“We changed the way consumers view long-haul travel and we are now in a position to use our strong brand to freshen up short-haul travel.”

Manchester Airports Group chief commercial officer Ken O’Toole said: “We are pleased to see Virgin Atlantic increasing their presence in Manchester and to see competition returning to the Manchester route. Virgin is already a strong carrier at the airport.”

Tickets for the route went on sale today.