Virgin hopes short-haul move will bolster claim for more BMI slots

Virgin Atlantic hopes its launch of Manchester to Heathrow flights will boost its case for winning the full complement of BMI slots to be awarded by competition authorities.

The long-haul carrier announced the shuttle service from Manchester yesterday as “the start of a new network” feeding passengers to Heathrow and confirmed it would add Edinburgh and Aberdeen flights if it wins the 12 pairs of former BMI slots up for grabs.

A Virgin Atlantic spokeswoman said: “The Manchester launch shows we are willing to use these slots to provide competition. It shows our commitment and it will show we can operate in this way.”

She added: “British Airways has a monopoly on Manchester-Heathrow, when 65% of passengers [on the route] are connecting to other flights.”

Virgin plans to operate three Manchester-Heathrow flights a day from March 31 using a leased Airbus A319 carrying about 120 passengers.

It has yet to finalise details of the service, but chief commercial officer Julie Southern told Travel Weekly in April when she first revealed plans for short-haul flights: “It will be recognisably Virgin.”

Tickets went on sale yesterday with fares from £95 return.

A spokesman for the airline said: “We are very serious about this. We need to have the quality of [passenger] feed to Heathrow.”

Virgin Atlantic is due to give formal notice of its bid for the BMI slots tomorrow. It expects a decision by the end of the year. The slots must be surrendered by BA as a condition of its takeover of BMI in April.

The Virgin spokesman said: “We are stunned that the regulator did not consider Manchester required a remedy [when BA bought BMI]. Manchester is a very lucrative market. The regulator considered the rail service provided enough competition, but it is a completely different market.”

Virgin confirmed it has also lodged an appeal against the decision to allow BA to acquire BMI. The spokesman said: “The way the Commission ignored Manchester is part of the case we’re building.”

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