At 35 years of age, Virgin Atlantic is going through another period of reinvention.
For a time, under the guiding hand of Delta, it seemed that Virgin was destined to a return to its roots as a North American focused carrier.
Now, it has reignited its ambitions to be a second major player at London Heathrow with an eye on a substantial number of slots should a third runway ever be built at Heathrow. This is a long way off for a number of reasons. However, with Virgin having reinstated Mumbai and launched Tel Aviv at Heathrow this year, the airline has clearly returned to a growth trajectory.
Here’s what you can expect from Virgin Atlantic in terms of fleet, routes, joint-ventures and lounges in 2020.
Virgin Atlantic continues to transition towards a twin-engined long-haul fleet.
This year, it disposed of one Boeing 747-400 aircraft (G-VBIG) and four Airbus A340-600 aircraft (G-VBUG, G-VRED, G-VWEB, G-VYOU).
At present, just three Airbus A340-600 aircraft are left in service (G-VFIT, G-VNAP, G-VWIN).
Virgin Atlantic has taken delivery of four of its order of twelve Airbus A350-1000 aircraft (G-VJAM, G-VLUX, G-VPOP, G-VPRD) with all remaining aircraft due to be delivered by 2021.
Currently, the Airbus A350-1000 aircraft is operating exclusively from London Heathrow to New York JFK on the following flights: VS3 / VS4; VS9 / VS10; VS45 / VS46; and VS137 / VS138.
Virgin plans to operate the Airbus A350 from London Heathrow to Johannesburg from Sunday 29 March 2020 (Flights VS449 / VS450).
The A350 will also operate to Los Angeles from Sunday 19 April 2020 (Flights VS23 / VS24), San Francisco from Friday 15 May 2020 (Flights VS19 / VS20), and Lagos from Saturday 1 / Sunday 2 August 2020 (VS411 / VS412).
Virgin’s original plan was to have fully replaced its long-haul fleet by 2021, but given ongoing issues with Boeing 787 Dreamliner engines are to continue well into 2020, this may be delayed.
Virgin will launch a new route from London Heathrow to Sao Paulo on Sunday 29 March 2020.
To support this, Virgin has also announced a new codeshare partnership with GOL. However, given Delta has recently acquired a 20% stake in LATAM, which is due to leave the Oneworld alliance, this may well be ultimately replaced by a partnership with LATAM which also serves Sao Paulo from London Heathrow.
Virgin will also add a second daily flight to Delhi from Sunday 29 March 2020 with an early morning departure (Flights VS302 / VS303) to complement its existing daily service.
Seattle will gain four weekly flights from Sunday 29 March 2020 (Flights VS167 / VS168) for the summer season, taking the total number of return flights to 11 a week. Los Angeles will also gain three weekly flights for the summer season (Flights VS143 / VS144), taking the total number of return flights to 17 a week.
Virgin will also, after a long hiatus, reinstate London Gatwick – New York JFK from Sunday 21 May 2020 (Flights VS193 / VS194). Virgin’s transatlantic joint-venture partner Delta will also add London Gatwick – Boston from Monday 8 June 2020.
Also at Gatwick, Virgin will suspend St Lucia from Monday 8 June 2020. Flights from Gatwick to Antigua will increase from 3 to 4 times weekly. Flights to Grenada and Tobago that are currently routed through St Lucia will be routed through Antigua.
Virgin will also transfer its twice weekly service to Havana from Gatwick to Heathrow, where it will operate from Tuesday 9 June 2020 under new flight numbers VS147 / VS148.
From an as yet unspecified date in early 2020, Air France-KLM, Delta and Virgin Atlantic are expected to launch a combined transatlantic joint-venture.
At present, Virgin only operates a transatlantic codeshare with Air France and KLM. When the new joint-venture launches Virgin will be able to co-ordinate schedules with Air France and KLM. Air France-KLM was also due to acquire a 31% stake in Virgin Atlantic, but this will now not go ahead and Virgin Group will retain control of the airline.
Air France-KLM and Virgin have previously indicated further co-operation such as co-location at London Heathrow and co-operation on other long-haul routes. Air France-KLM clearly have significantly more coverage of regions such as Africa and Asia than Virgin Atlantic. However, it is unclear whether this is affected by Air France-KLM not taking a stake in Virgin Atlantic.
Virgin is lobbying hard for special status as a designated “second flag carrier” at London Heathrow.
What this means is that Virgin seeks to be granted a high number of new slots if a third runway is constructed to enable it to operate a substantially larger short and long-haul network.
The nub of this is that, as an incumbent airline at Heathrow, if new slots were prioritised to airlines that do not currently serve Heathrow (eg easyJet or JetBlue, which have both expressed an interest in serving Heathrow) and / or existing Heathrow airlines were allocated a pool of slots on a proportional basis, IAG airlines would receive substantially more slots than Virgin.
Virgin’s call for special status as second flag carrier is effectively a form of Government intervention akin to the creation of British Caledonian to create a “second force” rival to BA.
Its rivals would argue, with some justification, that as Virgin has not shown a willingness to acquire Heathrow slots through acquiring other airlines (eg bmi) or through secondary trading of slots, there is no basis for it to have a special pleading to receive very many slots free of charge when its rivals have made substantial investments to grow their slot portfolios.
Also given Virgin’s current financial status, it would require a substantial injection of capital to expand capacity and its fleet, which does not appear to be forthcoming from its existing shareholders.
Flybe, in which Virgin now owns a 30% stake, will rebrand as Virgin Connect in 2020.
Flybe currently serves Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Guernsey and Newquay from London Heathrow. As much as Virgin will try to inject a bit of fizz into Flybe, regional short-haul flying and providing short-haul feeder traffic is a painfully unglamorous world and a thankless task. Given the public will view Virgin Connect as part of Virgin Atlantic, there is reputational risk in the event of operational problems.
Virgin will open a new Clubhouse lounge in Manchester on an as yet unspecified date in spring 2020.
No details have been given beyond it will have regular Clubhouse features such as pre-flight dining and a bar, but it will no doubt impress, and have a few nods to Manchester.
Virgin was due to launch a new loyalty programme this year.
However, there has been little by way of news. It had formed a new subsidiary company, Virgin Group Loyalty Ltd, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Virgin Group. This was renamed to Virgin Red this month, which is of course an existing programme offered by Virgin. Delta’s Senior Vice President of Alliances, Perry Cantarutti, was also appointed a Director of the company in October of this year.
Virgin will also join the Vitality Health Insurance programme later this year and qualifying members will be able to claim a 15% discount off Virgin Atlantic operated flights, before taxes and charges, and subject to a maximum of up to four bookings a year.