The Virgin boss Richard Branson is to fly to Moscow to lobby the Russian government to open its airports to more UK airlines after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) on Wednesday awarded rights to the last flight slots to Moscow to a rival airline, easyJet.
Virgin have long held ambitions to fly to Moscow and have not ruled out legal action over what they describe as a “disappointing, surprising and strange” decision by the CAA.
Branson is due to meet Vladimir Putin but talks on the airline issue will be held with other officials and politicians. He said it was time for “open skies”, and that decisions on how many airlines fly between countries were best left to a market “rather than a civil servant”.
EasyJet will operate a 180-seat Airbus A320 on its twice-daily services from London Gatwick to Moscow Domodedovo airport. It expects to fly more than 230,000 passengers in its first year of operations, starting next spring, with fares as cheap as £125 return.
Carolyn McCall, easyJet’s chief executive, said it was the right decision for consumers in the UK and Russia, and that the airline would serve business and leisure travellers alike.
However, Virgin claims that the vast majority of the market is made up of business travellers who would prefer to fly to Heathrow. Branson said: “Our plane was far more suitable for the route. The 125,000 extra seats we would have put on would have meant people ended up paying less.”
While Branson said he thought there was room for easyJet and Virgin, he claimed Virgin’s bigger Airbus A330 would also have allowed it to compete in the cargo market, 42% of which is owned by British Airways. “BA must be smiling today,” he added.
While Branson stressed that he did not think “this is a train situation” – a reference to the west coast rail franchising fiasco, where legal action from Virgin overturned the government’s original decision – he said he did not rule it out.
Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, Steve Ridgway, confirmed that a team in London was looking at the judgment. He said judicial review was “always an option”.
The CAA, under a bilateral agreement with Russia, has the right to award two daily London to Moscow slots to two UK airlines. BA retained the pair it held but the other had to be reallocated after the national carrier took over BMI, which also flew the route.
Branson and Ridgway were speaking in Delhi before Virgin’s inaugural flight on a new route from Mumbai.
While the airline is expanding its own services, Branson ruled out any further moves into Indian aviation, despite recent legislation relaxing foreign ownership rules. He told an Indian business audience that while he welcomed the moves, India needed to go further to attract investment. He added that he expected several airlines to go bust in an overcrowded domestic market.