The pandemic badly hit Virgin Atlantic, just as it did most airlines across the world. But the carrier made changes, regularly adjusted what it was doing, and confronted the onslaught. Now Virgin’s set to begin more routes to the Caribbean, with St Vincent taking off today.
What has been happening?
“The pandemic has been hard work and a lot of work,” said Rikke Christensen, Virgin Atlantic’s VP Network, Alliances, and Commercial Planning. She was speaking at World Routes in Milan, the industry event where airlines and airports get together.
Virgin suspended 25 routes in 11 days and was unhelped by the US being off-limits, with this one country responsible for 70% of its capacity in 2019. The carrier shut down operations in April 2020 to focus on cargo-only services, a “true lifeline,” Christensen said. Fourteen cargo routes operated, including Brussels, Frankfurt, and Milan Malpensa. As Christensen commented:
“We had to constantly change the short-term. There was a massive shift in how we worked. We had to continuously adjust, see what was working, and adjust again.”
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VFR markets remain extremely resilient
Christensen said Virgin saw a real appetite for visiting friends and relatives (VFR) demand, which was – and remains – “extremely resilient.” She singled out one country in particular: Pakistan.
Virgin launched Heathrow to Islamabad and Lahore along with Manchester to Islamabad. The temporary absence of Pakistan International on these routes – because of the EU ban on the carrier – created a clear and large gap for Virgin and British Airways. It was this that drove the opportunity in the first place.
As PIA increasingly returns using wet-leased aircraft, it’ll be fascinating to see how BA and Virgin respond. If Virgin returns to Gatwick next year, as Gatwick’s Chief Commercial Officer suggested to the author at World Routes, might the carrier shift these lower-yielding VFR markets to the airport? And might Caribbean routes return to Gatwick?
Premium demand helps Caribbean expansion
Premium economy and premium cabins generally have grown in importance for Virgin, especially from higher-end leisure travelers. “There has been very strong demand for it,” Christensen commented. This development – and the focus on tourism and VFR markets – helps explain additional routes to the Caribbean.
- St Vincent, beginning October 13th; twice-weekly via Barbados in both directions
- Nassau, Bahamas: November 20th, twice-weekly non-stop, continuing onto Montego Bay and returning via Nassau. (Virgin served Nassau from Gatwick 2005-2007.)
- St Lucia: December 18th, three-weekly non-stop ‘termination’ services. (Virgin served St Lucia from Gatwick for many years.)
A return to Virgin’s roots – or routes?
Like all airlines, Virgin is looking forward to more normality. “We’ll be getting back to our roots,” explained Christensen. By this, she meant the airline’s core market: the US. “The core won’t change for us.” In 2019, Virgin served 11 US airports with up to 142 weekly outbound flights.
This raises the question of what will happen to developments instigated during the pandemic, including Manchester and new routes from Heathrow. Will they be cut to make way for the core to resume at the pre-pandemic level? Will Delta be used for more US flying? Will non-core markets return to Gatwick?
One thing won’t change, though: cargo. While always important on long-haul routes and can make the difference between profit and loss, it seems Virgin has a renewed appreciation of it. “Cargo will be critical going forward and will drive frequencies for us.”
What do you think Virgin will be doing in 12 months? Let us know in the comments.