The announcement provoked a furious row between Virgin and Heathrow's other British airlines, which accused Mr Branson of distorting the facts.
Virgin said it could not start up the Johannesburg route because it had not been given enough slots at suitable times to operate a daily service throughout the year.
Tim Walden of British Midland, chairman of the Heathrow scheduling committee, called Virgin's claims 'wholly misleading and inaccurate'. The airline had applied for and received 14 take- off and landing slots for this winter, he said. Mr Branson responded that Virgin had been told there was only a 2 per cent chance of getting landing slots during the summer season. 'Even if we had got a winter schedule that was bang on time we couldn't risk spending pounds 25m on the launch of a new service and recruiting 400 staff without a guarantee of slots in the summer,' he said.
Virgin has now put forward proposals that long-haul airlines be favoured when slots are allocated. It also wants slots allocated for a maximum of 10 years.
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