Virgin Atlantic are demanding 150 of the slots created by Heathrow’s third runway. CEO Shai Weiss has spoken about how much of Virgin’s expansion plans hinge on the runway’s construction, and how Virgin plan to be the UK’s second flag carrier.
It may seem a bit outrageous to tie expansion plans to infrastructure that’s yet to be built, but that’s exactly the bold approach Virgin Atlantic are taking with regards to Heathrow’s third runway. A risky move, perhaps, but it’s all part of some exciting developments at Virgin.
The third runway
Under the leadership of new CEO, Shai Weiss, who took the top spot at the start of the year, Virgin have some serious expansion plans, many of which hinge on the third runway at Heathrow. Weiss told Routes Online he is confident the runway will be in place by 2026, and will give the airline an amazing opportunity to leverage growth in the international market.
Weiss is quoted by Routes Online as saying,
“In the long run, we have a clear desire to become the UK’s second flag carrier. We want to ensure the third runway at Heathrow is used to establish a second flag carrier to the benefit of consumers and business in Britain.
“We can only become the second flag carrier in this country if we are able to get a very high number of slots allocated at Heathrow once the third runway comes into operation. The current regime, though, doesn’t allow for that.
“You will hear us talking forcefully and with great passion about why the current regime of slot allocation prevents the emergence of Virgin Atlantic as a second flag carrier, which we believe is essential for consumers and passengers and businesses.”
Virgin Atlantic have recently acquired UK regional carrier Flybe, as part of a consortium of which they were the lead partner. Weiss believes that having a regional airline, which will eventually be brought into the Virgin brand, will help them reach deeper into the UK to channel passengers to and from their hubs.
Room for two
Weiss goes on to say that he is also confident that the UK market is big enough for more than one flag carrier. He comments that other nations including Japan and Korea all sustain multiple flag carriers, and that the UK can too, if Virgin are given the chance to grow.
Speaking with Routes Online, he said,
“We believe in order to really succeed and provide more competition across more routes to more destinations, scale is necessary. And there is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to achieve that scale given the emergence of the third runway when it gets built.
“But it is clear the current system is not allowing for that, so we will be arguing, and we believe the government will support us – and so will anyone with an eye for UK plc. Passengers in this country would see the emergence of stronger competition. If not, it’s just BA. And we don’t think that’s good.”
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As such, Weiss is prepared to take it to the highest levels to ensure Virgin are given a fair crack of the whip. Despite the fact that the third runway still hangs in the balance, he believes it pertinent to put plans in place now to make the most of this opportunity.
According to TTG, Virgin Atlantic plan to demand 150 of the additional slots at London Heathrow created by the construction of the new runway. It is estimated that the runway will create 350 new slots, of which Weiss is keen to request 46%.
IAG currently holds 55% of the slots at Heathrow, spread between British Airways, Vuelling, Aer Lingus, LEVEL and Iberia. Virgin, even when combined with partners Delta and Air France-KLM, has less than 10% of capacity. This has long been a bug-bear for the UK carrier, saying that BA has a ‘stranglehold’ on Heathrow Airport. TTG quote Weiss as saying,
“One group’s stranglehold on our nation’s hub airport means other airlines do not compete effectively on anything approaching a level playing field, and passengers are paying the price.”
He believes that the proposed expansion offers a “once in a lifetime opportunity” to change things up.
Of course, Heathrow is not the only Virgin Atlantic hub in the UK. The airline has a strong presence at Manchester, and is actively involved in expanding and modernizing the airport. As such, their expansion presses on, despite what may happen (or not happen) at Heathrow.
Despite running at a loss last year, Virgin aren’t afraid to invest in their growth. At this year’s Paris Air Show, Virgin placed a large order for 20 A330-900neos. While many of these will replace their exiting A330 fleet, the number they have ordered represents a significant capacity increase for the airline.
As well as their new orders, deliveries of their previous orders are just starting to filter through. In 2016, the carrier ordered 12 of the largest A350 variant, the A350-1000. They teased us with some footage of their first one all painted up last month, so we’re expecting delivery to be imminent.
In addition to new aircraft, Virgin Atlantic are busy launching flights to new destinations, restarting those it previously ceased and seeking closer ties with its partners and friends. Weiss previously said that all this was ‘just the tip of the iceberg’ for Virgin; we can’t wait to see what happens next!