John Varley, senior VP, chief administrative officer and general counsel of Atlanta-based ExpressJet Airlines.

High-flying general counsel John Varley has decided to depart Virgin America, where he’d served as the top lawyer for seven years, and land at ExpressJet Airlines Inc. as the Atlanta-based company’s senior vice president-chief administrative officer and general counsel.

Varley’s move, announced Thursday, comes amid the final stages of Virgin America’s $2.6 billion merger with Alaska Airlines, which began in 2016.

Varley joined Virgin America in 2010, about three years after billionaire adventurer and businessman Richard Branson launched the airline under his British venture capital conglomerate Virgin Group Ltd. The airline offered a hipper, more comfortable alternative to traditional commercial airlines and lured passengers with mood-lit cabins, custom-designed leather seats and on-demand menus.  

As the San Francisco-based company’s senior vice president and general counsel, Varley had a key role in Virgin America’s successful initial public offering in 2014. Later, he was involved in Virgin’s merger negotiations with Alaska Airlines.

In his new role at ExpressJet, Varley will be responsible for human resources, information technology and legal. He did not issue a statement. But his new boss, ExpressJet president and CEO Subodh Karnik, described Varley as a “highly-respected leader who has built high-performing, people-focused organizations.”

“His expertise will ensure ExpressJet has the programs, systems and infrastructure to be successful as we grow the airline with 25 new Embraer E175s and hire more than 600 pilots in 2019,” Karnik added in a written statement.

ManaAir LLC, part of a joint venture between newly formed KAir Enterprises Inc. and United Airlines, on Jan. 22 completed a $70 million acquisition of ExpressJet from its parent company, Skywest Inc. At the time, Karnik linked United’s investment to ExpressJet’s expansion efforts, stating that the airline’s planned 20 percent growth, which included hiring more pilots, “is only the start.”

In 2004, while Branson was laying the groundwork for the founding of Virgin America, Varley was settling into his first in-house role at an airline, Delta Air Lines Inc., where he served as vice president and deputy general counsel until 2008.

Delta, which also is headquartered in Atlanta, has ties to ExpressJet, as the two had once been partners.

But Delta announced in 2017 that it was ending the relationship, a move that followed the trend of major airlines shifting “toward closer relationships with select regional carriers that they control through ownership,” according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

ExpressJet, now operating as a United Express carrier for United Airlines, serves more than 100 airports across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

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