Virgin to create 1,400 jobs with new routes to Bahamas and Cuba

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The Independent Online

Sir Richard Branson last night unveiled a major expansion of his Virgin Atlantic airline which will create 1,400 jobs and provide a further boost to the UK aerospace industry.

Sir Richard Branson last night unveiled a major expansion of his Virgin Atlantic airline which will create 1,400 jobs and provide a further boost to the UK aerospace industry.

Virgin is to launch new routes to Australia, Cuba and the Bahamas, and increase services on some of its existing destinations. To cope with the expansion, the airline is ordering two further long-haul Airbus A340-600 aircraft, the wings of which are built in the UK.

The recruitment drive will increase the airline's workforce to just under 9,000 in the next year and will create an extra 700 cabin crew jobs along with 300 more ground staff at Heathrow and Gatwick and 300 more head office jobs.

Sir Richard said Virgin was aiming for double-digit growth over the next few years following signs the airline industry was finally pulling out of the deep recession precipitated by the 11 September attacks. Premium traffic was up 10 per cent across the Virgin network in recent weeks, he added.

Virgin plans to launch direct services from Gatwick to Cuba and the Bahamas from July 2005 and increase flights on existing routes to Las Vegas, Grenada and Tobago. The airline hopes to launch its "kangaroo route" to Sydney via Hong Kong by the end of this year, provided it gets European Union approval for the service.

In the aftermath of 11 September, Virgin cut 1,200 jobs but the workforce has been steadily growing in the past year and now stands at 7,500. Once the new routes are up and running, Virgin will be flying to a total of 25 long-haul destinations with a fleet of 34 aircraft including 12 Airbus A340-600s. It has also ordered six A380 superjumbos which are due for delivery from 2006 onwards.

Sir Richard said he had decided to launch services to Cuba after spending Christmas 2002 there with his family. The decision to start flying to Nassau in the Bahamas will break British Airways' monopoly on the route.

Virgin expects to place a $3bn (£1.6bn) order for an additional 30 wide-bodied aircraft with either Airbus or Boeing by the end of the summer. The choice is between Boeing's 777 and the Airbus A340. The new aircraft would almost double the fleet, enabling Virgin to grow passenger numbers to at least 6 million over the next four years.

Sir Richard said that Virgin Atlantic, which includes its holidays and cargo businesses, slightly increased profits in the year to the end of February compared with the £15.7m it made in the previous 12 months.

He also said Virgin hoped to launch its new low-cost American airline, Virgin USA, by the end of this year or early next year. Virgin aims to place an order for 35 short-haul aircraft with either Boeing or Airbus in the next month but has yet to decide where the airline will be based.

The choice is between San Francisco and Los Angeles in California or Boston and Washington. The airline, in which Virgin will have a 49 per cent stake but only 25 per cent of the voting rights, will cost between £50m and £250m to launch depending on whether Virgin chooses to build the carrier from scratch or enters a joint venture with the Washington-based US Airways.

Sir Richard said: "It will be the best low-cost airline anywhere in the world ­ it will be a low-cost airline with a twist." He said the heightened fear of terrorism had not altered Virgin's faith in a recovery in air travel.