Virgin Atlantic Airways is making good on its promise to enter the UK domestic market by launching thrice daily flights from London Heathrow to Manchester airport next spring.

The new service, which begins on 31 March 2013, will be operated with narrowbody Airbus A319s. Tickets go on sale today (21 August).

"Flying between Heathrow and Manchester is just the start for Virgin Atlantic's new short-haul operation," says chief executive Steve Ridgway.

"Operating a London to Manchester route will provide an invaluable feed to our existing long-haul network for both business and leisure passengers. It is the perfect introduction to short-haul flights for Virgin Atlantic."

Chairman Sir Richard Branson affirmed Virgin's desire to launch domestic flights after the acquisition of regional carrier BMI by IAG, the parent company of British Airways.

Virgin had lobbied the European Commission (EC) to block the IAG acquisition, arguing that a combined BA-BMI entity would command excessive market share on key domestic routes such as London-Manchester and London-Glasgow.

Though the regulator ultimately disagreed, it moved to allay monopoly fears by ordering IAG to hand over 14 slot pairs at Heathrow.

Two of those slot pairs are already leased to Russian carrier Transaero, while the remaining 12 pairs have yet to be auctioned off. Virgin describes the EC measures as inadequate, but nonetheless says it plans "to apply for all of the remedy slots".

The airline adds that it will use "some of its existing slots to service the Manchester to London route" irrespective of the outcome of the auction.

That comes in contrast to an earlier route launch in July, when Virgin unveiled new flights to Moscow but said they were "predicated on winning the Heathrow slots".

The carrier operates an all-widebody fleet of five Airbus A330s, 22 A340s and 13 Boeing 747-400s serving mid- to long-haul destinations. It also has orders for three A330s, six A380s and 13 787s, according to Flightglobal's Ascend Online database.

Source: Air Transport Intelligence news