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Virgin Atlantic CEO Steve Ridgway speaks to members of the media at Gatwick Airport in southern England April 16, 2012. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

The chief executive of Virgin Atlantic, the airline founded by entrepreneur Richard Branson, is to leave next year, the firm said on Sunday.

Steve Ridgway, a friend of Branson’s who joined the airline in 1989 and who has been CEO since 2001, will retire from the firm next spring and will lead the search for his successor, the firm said in a statement.

Virgin Atlantic, which is part-owned by Singapore Airlines, last month unveiled plans to make its first foray into the domestic short-haul market, going head to head with rival British Airways, part of IAG, on routes between London and Manchester next year.

Branson said of Ridgway: “He will be very much involved with the airline into next year and will doubtlessly be involved in other Virgin projects.”

(Reporting by Laurence Fletcher; editing by Jason Neely)