How Virgin Atlantic Has Adapted To Layoverless Cargo Trips

While crew may be used to a layover in an exotic destination after a long-haul flight, this hasn’t necessarily been the case since the pandemic began, as Virgin Atlantic explained in a recent blog post.

Virgin Atlantic, Ultra-Long-Haul, Preighters
Virgin has had to change a thing or two to make ultra-long-haul flights to Shanghai a reality. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Layovers at far off and exotic destinations have often been touted as one of the perks of being a member of long-haul flight crew. While they may be flying for work, most crews have the freedom to explore far-off destinations while recuperating. However, like most things in aviation, the pandemic has caused a significant shift in procedures. If not quarantining, the crew could be required to fly straight back to where they came from.

Ultra-long-haul return flights

For most, the longest flight they may ever undertake is the A350 flight from New York to Singapore, known as the world’s longest flight. However, recently Virgin Atlantic crew have been faced with 28 hour round trips, including a stop in China.

Stay informed: Sign up for our daily aviation news digest.

With Chinese borders closed, the crew aren’t allowed to disembark the aircraft in China. As such, the airline needs to place additional staff on each flight. For a flight to China, Virgin Atlantic will send seven pilots and four members of cabin crew.

Three pilots will fly on the outbound flight, while two crew members keep watching over the boxes or empty cabin. The remaining crew will rest in the premium cabin. The team then swaps for the return flight. While they may be resting in the upper-class cabin, with the inflight entertainment systems switched off, it is up to the crew to entertain themselves while not sleeping in the dark.

Virgin Atlantic, Ultra-Long-Haul, Preighters
Much of the cabin is occupied by boxes of essential PPE. Photo: Getty Images

Of course, this presents a challenge for the airline as it seeks to ensure that the crew doesn’t get tired. As such, the fatigue management team plays a vital role in these flights. The long trips mean that crew is working their most prolonged duty periods to date.

Recently Lufthansa crew managed to clock 20 duty hours flying to the Falkland Islands. However, for the Virgin crew on ultra-long-haul flights, it sits at 30 hours.

What happens in China?

Of course, the question on everybody’s mind is, “what happens on the ground in China?” When arriving, the flight is met by ground staff wrapped from head to toe in PPE. Additionally, despite not leaving the plane, all crew members have their temperature taken on arrival.

Virgin Atlantic relies on its cargo operations manager in Shanghai, Jerry Zhang, to make sure the two-hour layover goes as smoothly as possible. The flight’s cargo must be loaded in two hours to ensure that crew doesn’t exceed their 20-hour duty. At the same time, while locals are busy packing the cabin, the two teams of crew swap.

Virgin Atlantic, Ultra-Long-Haul, Preighters
Ground crew are decked from head to toe in protective gear in China. Photo: Getty Images

Commenting on his role, Zhang said,

“It’s been my honour to do my part at this critical time for the company. Thanks to everyone involved with this amazing project we’ve been able to transport over a billion items of PPE from here in China to the UK.”

Back in the UK, the crew is offered an airport hotel, so they don’t need to travel a long way home. They’re also guaranteed to get at least three days off before their next voyage.

What’s the longest flight that you’ve taken? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.