April 1, 2005

Virgin Says Space Flight Plan Complete

BOMBAY (AFP) -- Flamboyant British tycoon Richard Branson said his Virgin group's ambitious plans for commercial space flights are complete and the first fee-paying astronaut will fly with him into orbit in the next 30 months.

"The plan for the new spaceship is complete and work on the project will commence in the next three months, with the first commerical space flight to take off in two-and-half years," Branson told reporters in Bombay, India's financial hub.

Branson landed in Bombay Thursday on board the inaugural flight of his Virgin Atlantic Airways from London. The airline will operate three flights weekly between the two cities.

Wearing a traditional Indian silk costume, Branson said the aim was to make forays into space both safe and cheap.

"We want to make space travel as affordable as possible to people from across the world," he told a press conference.

Virgin Atlantic last year signed a technology licensing deal with US company Mojave Aerospace Ventures. Mojave was behind SpaceShipOne, which in June 2004 became the first private manned craft to travel into space.

"I, with my parents and my son and my daughter will travel in the first space flight," said the 54-year-old tycoon, who made his fortune with the Virgin pop record label before branching out into air travel, railways, telecommunications and a host of other enterprises.

Commenting on the core airline business, Branson said Virgin Atlantic had laid out aggressive plans in many international markets, including the United States, India, Nigeria and the Bahamas.

"The US still does not have good-quality airlines. We will expand our wings there," Branson told AFP.

He said Virgin Atlantic would also help build a national airline for Nigeria.

"Nigeria, which is one of the largest oil producers, does not have a national airline and we will help build it. An airline that would be best in Africa and make the Africans proud," Branson said.

He hoped the governments of Britain and India adopt an aggressive "open skies" policy so that airlines could launch as many flights between the two countries as possible.

"The skies should be open between the two countries. Let anyone fly anywhere in each other's airspace... India's Jet can fly anywhere in Britain, while Virgin Atlantic or British Airways be able to fly anywhere in India," said Branson, who is keen to invest in the Indian aviation sector.

India only recently gave the go-ahead for private domestic airlines Jet Airways and Sahara to undertake international flights to London, after the two countries last year agreed to double the number of flights between them from 19 to 40.

"Indian policy is still slightly murky and not clear-cut. But I hope I get to invest in the Indian domestic airlines," Branson told reporters.

He said he was also looking for opportunities in the Indian telecommunications, music and health club sectors.

"India is the second fastest growing economy and growth here will be quite spectacular," he added.

Last month Virgin boosted its flights from London to the Indian capital Delhi from three times a week to a daily service while from Thursday its thrice-weekly flights to Bombay were launched.


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