Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. appointed Craig Kreeger, a 53-year-old American, as its chief executive officer, four weeks after Delta Air Lines Inc. agreed to buy a 49 percent stake in the U.K. carrier.
Kreeger, who takes over on Feb. 1, joins from American Airlines, where he is a senior vice president, and replaces Steve Ridgway, who said in September that he would step down this year after running Virgin Atlantic since 2001.
The new CEO has the experience needed to tap opportunities created by the Delta deal, which will see the carriers operate a joint venture on 31 daily flights between the U.K. and North America, billionaire Branson said in a statement. Born in Little Rock, Arkansas, Kreeger has worked at AMR Corp. for 27 years in commercial, financial and strategic roles, according to Virgin.
“Sometimes it can make sense to have a fresh pair of eyes from the outside,” said Douglas McNeill, an analyst at Charles Stanley in London. “One of Virgin’s weaknesses is it’s quite U.K.-dependent and perhaps this is an acknowledgement that they need to be building up the brand in the U.S.”
Julie Southern, 53, who was seen as an internal candidate for the CEO post, will remain chief commercial officer.
“She will continue to spearhead the work to implement our joint venture with Delta,” spokeswoman Anna Catchpole said.
Kreeger, who previously spent six years in London as AMR’s senior vice president, international, will need to get the Delta relationship “up and running as soon as possible,” as well overseeing Virgin’s move into short-haul flights, McNeill said.
A graduate of the University of California, San Diego, who also holds an MBA from UCLA, Kreeger also worked on American Airlines ventures with British Airways, Virgin’s chief rival at London Heathrow. He is currently senior vice president, customer, at Fort Worth-based AMR, a post he took on last year.
“He’ll be taking over at a time when the airline enters a new phase, with the Delta deal to implement, the commencement of short-haul competition for BA on U.K. domestic routes, as well as the arrival of the 787 fleet,” current CEO Ridgway said of his replacement, who he’ll assist until the end of February.
Ridgway has spent 23 years at Crawley, England-based Virgin, during which time the carrier grew from two Boeing Co. 747s to a fleet of 40 long-haul aircraft that will include the U.S. manufacturer’s latest 787 Dreamliner from summer, 2014.
Atlanta-based Delta agreed on Dec. 11 to buy the stake in Virgin Atlantic held by Singapore Airlines Ltd. since 1999 for $360 million, tapping the U.K. carrier’s strength at Heathrow airport, Europe’s busiest hub.
AMR is currently reorganizing under bankruptcy protection and expects to reach a decision within weeks on whether to merge with US Airways Group Inc. or remain independent, CEO Tom Horton said Jan. 3 in a memo to employees.