LONDON (The Wall Street Journal) - Virgin Atlantic said Chief Executive Steve Ridgway is stepping down after 23 years with the trans-Atlantic carrier, leaving an unenviable task to his successor as the U.K. airline grapples with high fuel prices, tough competition and a sluggish British economy.
Ridgway said he would lead the search for his successor, who will likely be in place early next year. The airline's chief commercial officer, Julie Southern, would be "a likely leading internal candidate" to replace Ridgway, a person in the industry said.
"I've seen many great times and a few bad and have always remained firm that we must offer something different to that of our competitors," Ridgway said in a written statement Sunday. Richard Branson's Virgin Group owns 51% of the carrier, and the rest is held by Singapore Airlines Ltd.
Virgin Atlantic recently lost a partner when International Consolidated Airlines Group SA acquired British Midland Ltd. from Deutsche Lufthansa AG. Bmi, as the regional airline is known, provided Virgin Atlantic with connecting traffic under a code-sharing agreement. IAG is the parent company of Virgin Atlantic's arch rival British Airways.
Virgin Atlantic, which flies 5.5 million passengers a year, said last month it would start operating flights between Manchester in northern England and London starting early next year.
The resignation of Ridgway, 62 years old, comes amid a shakeout in Europe's airline sector. High fuel costs and growing competition on domestic and regional routes from budget carriers have contributed to the financial collapse of small airlines and left many of the region's flag carriers nursing steep losses.
Consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers recently identified Virgin Atlantic as being among roughly 50 airlines that are in the "squeezed middle" of small and midsize carriers facing the threat of losing market share or being bought by stronger players.
Singapore Airlines declined to comment on Mr. Ridgway's resignation and possible successors.