SFO could be gateway for Virgin Atlantic; It depends on U.S.-Europe open-skies agreement

The question remains, will U.S. loosen restrictions?

Virgin Atlantic has also ordered 15 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, is upgrading its facilities at Heathrow and is spending millions of pounds revamping its sleek airport lounges, according to Chris Rossi, the carrier's senior vice president for North America. He characterized Virgin Atlantic's SFO-Heathrow route as a strong performer, saying the flights are typically full and split evenly between leisure travelers and business travelers. Business travelers produce most of the revenue because they tend to pay the highest fares.

Rossi said intense competition for a limited number of landing slots at Heathrow -- the world's busiest airport for international travelers -- has prompted Virgin Atlantic to plan new routes between European cities and prime U.S. destinations such as San Francisco.

For his part, Ridgway blasted rules restricting where airlines can fly and who can invest in them as vestiges of the Cold War, when nations kept their domestic airlines under tight government control for national security reasons.

"Aviation is the last global industry that's not free to operate like a normal business," Ridgway said. "The automotive industry has been freed, steel has been freed. What is special about aviation? We need to get real, don't we?"

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