Author`s name AP ©

Virgin rises

Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd., the privately owned British airline controlled by billionaire Richard Branson, said Tuesday that a record number of business travelers sent annual pretax profits before one-off items up 38 percent.

The company reported a pretax profit for the 2007-2008 financial year of 60.9 million pounds (US$112.2 million), up from 44 million pounds a year earlier.

The result for the year to Feb. 29 excluded a 32 million pound (US$59 million) charge relating to the settlement of a class action lawsuit over the price-fixing of fuel surcharges. Virgin and rival airline British Airways PLC admitted to colluding over fuel surcharges on long-haul flights between August 2004 and January 2006.

Sales rose 9.1 percent to 2.3 billion pounds (US$4.2 billion).

Virgin credited a 22 percent increase in first and business class passengers for the rise in profits.

The carrier said that it had continued to benefit from increasing numbers of premium fliers into the first quarter of this year as passengers shunned British Airways to avoid the problems at Heathrow's new Terminal 5, which BA uses. Terminal 5 had a disastrous opening in March, with flights canceled, luggage lost and enormous lines.

The company also said that its launch of a crop of new routes - to destinations including Nairobi, Kenya and Mauritius - helped increase the total number of passengers it carried over the year to 5.7 million, an increase of 7.6 percent.

"Against the backdrop of high oil prices and weakening consumer demand, we are well-placed to succeed over the coming months," said chief executive Steve Ridgway.

As a privately owned company, Virgin is not required to report net profits, or release regular earnings reports.