Outgoing Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgway has launched a scathing attack on the impact of the UK government and regulators on the aviation sector.
Speaking at an Aviation Club lunch in London this week Ridgway claimed a better aviation policy would have meant both Virgin and rival BA would have been up to half as big again as they are today.
Ridgway will leave the airline in March after 23 years at the carrier to be replaced by former American Airlines' executive Craig Kreeger, who joined Virgin at the beginning of this month.
Blasting government aviation policy and particularly the loss of business at Heathrow, which he said was the only option for capacity expansion in the south east, Ridgway said:
"Virgin Atlantic has worked very hard to keep the Grim Reaper at bay and we've been very successful at that. But he's been alive and well within government, institutions and regulators.
"We are enabling industry, connecting people, tourists, businesses, friends and families. We provide the key with which the UK participates in the economy.
"Virgin Atlantic is a £3billion company but a billion of those tickets are sold overseas, making us a billion pound exporter.
"We employ 9,000 people and I think we create some really good jobs. So I don't understand why the government doesn't think we're a really good employer.
"If we hadn't given away our right as a hub to Frankfurt and other European airports, I think Virgin could have been a £5 billion business with £2 billion of foreign sales; employing 15,000 people rather than 9,000.
"And British Airways could have been a £15 billion business, not £10 billion, creating £6 billion worth of exports not £4 billion and employing 50,000 people rather than 40,000.
"Where else would we be flying? How many more planes would we have ordered? How many more Chinese tourists would there be coming over here?
"Imagine how many more companies would be based here if we'd been able to do what we needed to and been brave enough to do it?
Ridgway accused the UK government and Europe of favouring other industries within the aviation sector and warned countries which are backing the sector, like Singapore and Turkey, are poised to be a huge threat.
He said: "The Government loves great manufacturing companies like Airbus and Rolls Royce, but they don't seem to like the people that fly the planes.
"We have paid a huge price for poor policy and airports being full. And why has it taken 15 years not to achieve single skies in Europe? Why is APD in the UK the highest in the world?
"Not getting these things right damages the core and damages the heart of industry and the economy. The Grim Reaper has been allowed to win. He's had a really good time and we've got to stop it.
"Joined up aviation can change countries - just look at Singapore. And we're not even realising what's beginning to happen in Turkey."
As his career with Virgin draws to a close Ridgway said he believed his successes at Virgin could have been much greater had the sector got the backing of government.
He added: "The aviation industry looks very different to how it did when Richard [Branson] first persuaded me to leave the boating industry and join the aviation industry, but oh, oh how much better could it have been if the contribution of aviation has been better recognised.
"Instead, it's been the Grim Reaper doing our thinking, our policy-making and causing our paralysis and we are paying a massive price for it.
"We have to fix the issue of airport capacity. It has to be Heathrow, but even if we made a decision, it would be years and the damage to the economy is untold."
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