Ticket sales approved for Virgin America

Virgin America Inc., a budget airline partly owned by U.K. billionaire Richard Branson, said it received U.S. approval to begin ticket sales and plans to start flights next month.

Dates for the initial service, with 10 Airbus SAS planes, will be announced in the next few weeks, the carrier said in a statement on its Web site Wednesday. Virgin America got U.S. Transportation Department permission in May to begin operations once it received needed safety permits and took other actions, including finding a new chief executive officer.

Virgin America, based in Burlingame, Calif., has said it will begin with flights between New York and San Francisco, and then expand. The company has said it will serve up to 10 cities within a year of beginning operation and up to 30 cities within five years. Salt Lake City is among additional cities Virgin America is considering.

The U.S. service will extend Branson's Virgin brand to the world's largest airline market.

"We're eager to bring this exciting new airline to the flying public," CEO Fred Reid said in the statement.

The carrier Wednesday also received its operating certificate from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, company spokesman Gareth Edmondson-Jones said in an interview.

The closely held airline was required by the Transportation Department to make changes to ensure it could operate independently of Branson's U.K.-based Virgin Atlantic Airways. U.S. regulations bar foreigners from "actual control" of a domestic airline.

Virgin America hasn't named a chief to replace Reid. U.S. regulators in March said he would have to leave in six months because he may be "beholden" to foreign interests. Branson hired Reid in 2004. A replacement probably won't be named until late this year, Edmondson-Jones said.

Branson's closely held Virgin Group Ltd. provided 25 percent of the initial $177 million investment used to begin the airline in 2005, plus a $53 million loan.