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Virgin Atlantic to begin new nonstop air service to England

Updated Wednesday, April 7, 2010 | 2:41 p.m.

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Virgin Atlantic Airlines' Richard Branson, dressed as Elvis Presley, poses with showgirls Pamela Boulden, left, and Kristy Brotherson at McCarran International Airport after Branson arrived on the first Virgin Atlantic nonstop flight from London to Las Vegas on June 8, 2000.

Virgin Atlantic Airways, the British air carrier operated by its flamboyant top executive, adventurer Richard Branson, will start twice-weekly nonstop air service between Manchester, England, and Las Vegas next year.

The London-based airline announced today that it would begin flights on four-engine Boeing 747-400 jets beginning April 3, 2011.

With the carrier's existing daily service between London's Gatwick International Airport and Las Vegas, the airline would have nine daily flights to and from Great Britain to McCarran International Airport, the most by any overseas operator. It also would mark the first time that an air carrier offered overseas flights to Las Vegas from more than one destination.

British Midland Airways Ltd., based in North West Leicestershire, England, and operated as bmi, once flew the Manchester-Las Vegas route, discontinuing it in April 2009 when the airline was taken over by Lufthansa.

"We are delighted to be able to announce direct services from Manchester to Las Vegas," Steve Ridgway, chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, said in a statement announcing the new service.

"The decision to expand our Manchester flying program underlines Virgin Atlantic's commitment to flying to long-haul destinations from regional airports in the UK and these Manchester flights will be a great addition to our current services," he said.

Cathy Tull, senior vice president of marketing for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, said the announcement came at a perfect time for the city because the LVCVA has planned a sales and marketing mission to Manchester later this month.

"We have been talking to various (airline) partners about the Manchester route ever since bmi dropped it," Tull said. "Virgin approached us about it a short time ago and we encouraged them to pursue it."

Tull said the Manchester route was successful under bmi, but the route didn't fit in Lufthansa's operational plans. The route was inaugurated by bmi in November 2004 and flew 80 percent full at its peak. She said she expects the route to remain viable, even with additional flights between London and Las Vegas.

Last fall, British Airways inaugurated daily nonstop flights between London's Heathrow International Airport and Las Vegas.

She said the Virgin has modest expansion plans for 2011 and that new aircraft the airline is acquiring will replace older jets. But the Las Vegas-Manchester plan beat out other routes the airline was considering and it is expected to be the only new overseas flight Virgin is adding next year.

Tull said the LVCVA would help market the new flight with standard cooperative advertising strategies. The LVCVA already has sales and marketing activities in the Manchester market, but the nonstop flight is expected to give it a boost.

"I think it's great for the city and great for our partners at Virgin to be a part of this at this time," she said.

Virgin already is selling Las Vegas flight packages on its Web site. The airline will begin selling Manchester flights in early May.

Virgin Atlantic is 51 percent owned by Branson, a colorful aviation figure who has made frequent visits to Las Vegas. The Virgin brand is affiliated with 360 companies and Branson is involved in space tourism ventures.

In 2007, Branson rappelled off the tower of the Palms hotel-casino in a publicity stunt promoting Virgin America Airlines, which he does not own but supports because he is restricted by U.S. law from owning an American airline. The billionaire businessman also is an accomplished balloonist and holds several world flight records.

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