The expansive and ambitious manner of Virgin Group boss Richard Branson has been known for a long time, but it is not often that we see an airline revealing such aggressive expansion plans as Virgin Atlantic. The company confirmed this week that it intends to jump from 19 current destinations to no fewer than 103 cities served. The company is currently about to debut flights to cities such as Mumbai, India, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and has launched its first A350-1000.
Only 12 of the 84 intended routes are considered national while long-haul flights add up to 35 destinations. Europe is the region that is most likely to be expanded, with 37 cities, including Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Frankfurt and Rome.
Virgin Atlantic’s goal is very clear: to break the “monopoly” of British Airways, which has just turned 100 years old. No wonder 26 of these destinations today are uniquely rival.
Although sounding new, some of these destinations have already been served by Virgin, such as Sydney and Tokyo or even cities within the UK, whose operations were discontinued in 2015.
Today, the airline’s operations use the Manchester, Glasgow, Gatwick and Heathrow air terminals and it is precisely the largest European airport that promises to be the centerpiece of the dispute with British Airways.
Expand or not Heathrow
With only two runways and more than 80 million passengers by 2018, Heathrow has plans to expand its terminals and build a third runway. However, the issue is controversial with many people against expanding the already heavy air traffic over the UK capital with its implications for noise and air pollution.
British Airways, which now dominates nearly half of the airport’s slots, has been pushing against expansion, while Virgin Atlantic sees the third runway as the key to gaining access to Heathrow, where it has only 4% of flights. The arguments of Virgin company executives are simple: increased competition and passenger benefit. The company cites the recent strike by BA pilots as an example of the tragic market concentration at the London airport that has left thousands of passengers on the ground in recent weeks.
“Never has the need for effective competition and choice at Heathrow Airport been more evident than during this summer of disruption, which has brought misery to have thousands of travelers. Britain, and those who travel to it, deserve better than this. Air passengers need a choice and Virgin Atlantic is ready to deliver when Heathrow expands,” said Shai Weiss, CEO Virgin Atlantic.
“Heathrow has been dominated by an airline group for far too long. The third runway is once in a lifetime opportunity to change the status quo and create a second flag carrier. This would lower fares and give real choice to passengers, as well as giving Britain a real opportunity to boost its trade and investment links around the world. Changing the way take-off and landing slots are allocated for this unique and vital increase in capacity at the nation’s hub airport will create the right conditions for competition and innovation to thrive.”
In its statements, Virgin Atlantic called its plan “an end to IAG’s stranglehold over the UK’s only hub airport”. The IAG group is the parent of British Airways and also Iberia, among other smaller companies. Branson’s company does not hide its ambition to be the second flag carrier of the United Kingdom, which has not been seen in Europe for a long time, which used to retain only one representative in each country and focus on competition outside the continent.
To undertake such an expansion, however, Virgin will need to bolster its now modest fleet against British Airways. The airline has only 47 two-aisle jets against almost 280 BA aircraft. Knowing Branson’s predilection for marketing, the battle promises to be arduous.