How Aer Lingus Flew Domestic UK Flights For Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic is well known for specializing in long-haul travel from various UK airports. However, in the mid-2010s, Airbus A320s bearing the airline’s livery also plied certain UK domestic routes. They did so under the Virgin Atlantic Little Red brand, and were operated by Irish flag carrier Aer Lingus. Let’s explore this partnership.

Virgin Atlantic Little Red Airbus A320
Virgin Atlantic Little Red served four UK airports. Photo: RussellHarryLee via Flickr

How it all began

The partnership between Aer Lingus and Virgin Atlantic came about after British Airways acquired British Midland International in 2012. This would effectively have given BA a monopoly on some UK domestic routes. As such, in the interests of fairness, the EU’s Competition Commissioner ruled that BA would have to give up 14 ex-BMI slots at Heathrow.

Among these were 12 domestic slots, which Virgin Atlantic outbid Aer Lingus for. However, interestingly enough, Virgin ended up working with the Irish flag carrier to run the services that filled these slots. It christened its domestic brand ‘Virgin Atlantic Little Red,’ and wet-leased four Airbus A320s from Aer Lingus, who also provided crew members.

Virgin Atlantic Little Red Airbus A320
Virgin Atlantic Little Red used ex-BMI slots at Heathrow. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons

Although the aircraft and crew belonged to the Irish flag carrier, Virgin was able to retain a visual presence by painting the planes in its famous red livery. Similarly, the crew members for these flights wore Virgin uniforms, and received training at the airline.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

Where did they fly?

Virgin Atlantic Little Red commenced operations in March 2013 when it made its first flight between London Heathrow and Manchester. Of course, these two airports are key hubs for Virgin Atlantic’s long-haul services to destinations somewhat further afield.

In April 2013, Little Red also added flights to Scotland. Specifically, it served Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It hoped that passengers would use these to connect with Virgin’s long-haul flights in London. According to Highbeam Research, the first six months saw the airline transport 250,000 passengers. However, these numbers proved hard to sustain.

Richard Branson Virgin Atlantic Little Red
Richard Branson traveled on the inaugural Little Red service to Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.

The end of the line

Unfortunately, Virgin Atlantic Little Red’s business model did not work as had been hoped. Rather than using the flights as connections to Virgin’s long-haul network, many passengers traveled on them as standalone domestic services to and from London.

Part of the reason for this was the fact that the airline didn’t use the same terminal at Heathrow as Virgin’s long-haul flights. The need to transfer from Terminals 1 and 2 to 3 (which had no domestic gates) made the connection a comparatively awkward experience.

Virgin Atlantic Little Red Airbus A320
Little Red was eventually plagued by low load factors. Photo: Mark Harkin via Flickr

According to the Telegraph, a lack of demand eventually caused Little Red’s load factors to fall as low as 37.6%. This led to the termination of the Heathrow-Manchester route, which ceased operating in March 2015. The Scottish routes quickly followed later that year.

Despite holding out for another six months, Virgin Atlantic Little Red eventually had to shut down its services to Edinburgh and Aberdeen. The last of these operated in September 2015. With the final flights having been operated, Virgin Atlantic terminated its lease agreement with Aer Lingus. The A320s returned to the carrier, where two remain today.

Did you know about Virgin Atlantic Little Red? Perhaps you even flew with the airline at some point between 2013 and 2015? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.