Delta Alliance With Virgin Opens Door to Heathrow

IN announcing Tuesday a partnership between Virgin Atlantic Airways and Delta Air Lines, the third-largest carrier in the United States, Richard Branson, the flamboyant chairman of Virgin, called it ``a perfect marriage.''

Mr. Branson will receive a minimum of $150 million a year from Delta, along with a promise to Virgin's frequent flyers that they can cash in their miles on Delta flights. Branson said Virgin plans to add flights in New York and Los Angeles and open gates in Washington and Chicago.

For its part, Delta will now be able to sell seats on Virgin flights into London's Heathrow Airport. Delta's lack of access to Heathrow has left it at a competitive disadvantage with three other major US carriers: American Airlines, United Airlines, and USAir. Until now, Delta could only offer its customers flights to Gatwick, London's less popular airport.

Delta Chairman Ronald Allen said he expects at least a 10 percent return on the Heathrow flights from the airline's $150 million investment. Delta finances have been running in the red.

Delta will independently price, market, and sell seats to Heathrow on Virgin flights from seven US cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Newark, N.J., Miami, San Francisco, Orlando, Fla., and Boston. The flights will carry both Delta and Virgin flight numbers.

Delta had bitterly fought the continuation of a similar ``code-sharing'' agreement that USAir struck with British Airways to get flights into Heathrow. In March, Transportation Secretary Federico Pena announced that the USAir deal would be allowed to continue for another year. The US and Britain have failed for some time to arrive at a new aviation agreement that would open up more slots at Heathrow to US carriers.

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