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Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgway will quit the carrier early next year as it prepares to launch a new short-haul operation.

The airline confirmed Ridgway’s departure yesterday following press reports that he was going.

Ridgway has been head of Virgin Atlantic since 2001 and has held senior posts at the carrier since 1989. He will leave next spring.

In a statement, Virgin Atlantic said Ridgway had discussed his plans to step down with Sir Richard Branson early this year. It added that Ridgway is “leading the search to find his successor”.

Ridgway’s departure could be seen as blow to the airline. However, Virgin Atlantic president Branson said: “He will be very much involved with the airline into next year and will doubtlessly be involved in other Virgin projects as we value his skills so highly.”

Branson added: “Steve has been a close friend and confidant since the early days. He has shaped the airline into the company it is today.”

Ridgway said: “I will be leaving the airline as it embarks on a new era of flying. I am confident that it will continue to soar.”

The Sunday Times suggested Ridgway had resigned over money. In a recent interview, the Virgin Atlantic boss said of his salary: “It’s not as high as I’d like and my bosses know that.”

Virgin’s chief commercial officer Julie Southern is among the favourites to take over. Air New Zealand chief executive Rob Fyfe is reported to be among the leading external candidates.

The change at the top will come at a crucial time as Virgin Atlantic prepares to launch short-haul services between Manchester and Heathrow.

The carrier will add short-haul flights from Edinburgh and Aberdeen if it succeeds in a bid for former British Airways slots at Heathrow and compete with BA for feeder traffic for the first time.

Virgin also hopes to begin flights to Moscow and could launch other routes within Europe and the Middle East if its slots bid proves successful.

BA will surrender 12 pairs of Heathrow slots following its takeover of BMI, which formally ceased flying a