On the back of the shock news that Virgin have sidestepped the shareholder vote to close the deal with Flybe comes another surprise from the Exeter based firm. The struggling airline has sold off a number of slots at Gatwick to IAG owned budget carrier Vueling.
On behalf of the Spanish budget carrier, IAG is paying a total of £4.5m for the slots. They will be paying the funds in two tranches, with the first due in the next few days.
In a statement, the airline said:
“Flybe Group plc announces that today Flybe Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary, signed an agreement with Vueling Airlines to receive a total of £4,500,000 in respect of slots at London Gatwick Airport. The funds will be paid in two tranches, being receivable in the next few days in respect of slots to be used during the Summer Season in 2019 and for subsequent Summer Seasons. The remainder is due in June 2019 in respect of slots to be used during the Winter Season in 2019/20 and subsequent Winter Seasons.”
It is believed the slots relate to their Gatwick – Newquay route, which will move to Heathrow from March onwards. They don’t operate any other services to or from Gatwick, and still have all their slots at Heathrow intact.
It’s not the first time Flybe have cashed in on their valuable London airport slots. Back in 2013, they sold a number of slots at Gatwick to easyJet for the princely sum of £20m. At that time, they were simply rationalising their operations; this time they were desperate.
What does this mean for Virgin’s purchase?
In terms of the sale, Virgin and their Connect Aviation consortium were almost certainly well aware of the situation before steaming ahead with their purchase. Although they are due to deposit £10m of the initial £20m bridging loan to Flybe in the next few days, an additional £4.5m cash injection is much needed at this stage.
Virgin operate both from Gatwick and from Heathrow, but will they be concerned to lose a slot at the south London airport? They do have head offices in Crawley, which is much closer to Gatwick than to Heathrow. Gatwick was where their maiden flight took off from, so it’s kind of ‘home’ to the carrier.
Even so, as time has gone on, they’ve had a much greater presence at Heathrow too. Their ‘Clubhouse’ lounges are present in both airports, and there’s no real difference in facilities between the two. All their 747-400s are based either at Gatwick or Manchester, but Heathrow is home to their A330s, A340s and 787s.
Virgin Atlantic currently fly from London Gatwick to Antigua, Barbados, Cancun, Grenada, Havana, Las Vegas, Montego Bay, Orlando, St Lucia, Tobago and Varadero. From Heathrow they fly to Atlanta, Boston, Bridgetown, Cape Town, Chicago, Delhi, Detroit, Hong Kong, Johannesburg, Lagos, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Shanghai and Washington.
Clearly the bulk of their lucrative transatlantic operations centre around Heathrow. This has been the case since their partnership with Delta was agreed, when they moved a number of their routes from Terminal 4 to Terminal three, to operate from the same hub as their new partner.
In terms of linked flights with Delta, Heathrow is going to be a firm base of operations. The only place where this falls down is when a passenger wants to connect with their other partner, Air France – KLM.
Air France and KLM both fly from Gatwick and Heathrow in relatively even measure. As anyone who has had to transfer between the two airports will know, it’s no mean feat, requiring a minimum of three to four hours travelling time.
Despite this, we don’t think Connect or Virgin will be particularly worried about the loss of the Gatwick slot; they’ll be happy funnelling regional passengers into their key hub at Heathrow T3.
A small win for Willie
Undoubtedly, IAGs CEO, Willie Walsh, was less than happy to hear he’d been gazumped on the purchase of Flybe. Although he failed to fully throw his hat into the ring, it was common knowledge that he was interested, and it could have been a boon for BA to get all those regional connections.
Now, he has to be content with swiping the Gatwick slots from under Virgin’s nose. Good for you Willie.