Virgin Atlantic pulled out of Gatwick back in May, spurring thousands of job losses both within the airline and at the airport itself. As speculation begins to grow over whether the airline will ever return, CEO Shai Weiss maintains that Virgin remains committed to the South London airport. But with no changes likely over the course of the next year, it seems he’s betting on a slot waiver extension to maintain the airport as a future option.
Will Virgin ever go back to Gatwick?
It’s been 36 years since Virgin took its first flight from London’s Gatwick Airport, launching with a single Boeing 747 flying to Newark. Despite moving some services to London’s Heathrow Airport, the airline has always maintained a presence at the city’s second airport. That is, until 2020.
As the COVID crisis began to bite, Virgin Atlantic announced it would be suspending operations from Gatwick, cutting more than 3,000 jobs in the process. Since then, the airline has not flown from the airport, and speculation has grown over whether it will return at all.
Speaking at the recent CAPA Live event, Virgin’s CEO Shai Weiss indicated that the airline remains committed to Gatwick. However, he doesn’t expect to make a return to the airport any time soon, perhaps not even before the end of next year. He said,
“We know that Gatwick is a very good airport, which is focused very much on leisure travel, mostly point to point, so has very limited connectivity coming in from other places. And we know or expect that leisure travel will actually resume quicker than the business travel. So we’re not ruling Gatwick out.
“But for now, and I expect for the next year, there will be no changes to the configuration. But that, of course, depends on the demand and what we can see evolving given the vaccine, given the treatment, given the testing.”
Virgin’s suspension of flying from Gatwick has contributed to the slew of job losses at the airport. In August, Gatwick announced the shrink of jobs by 600 positions, something that will have a major impact on the local economy. That’s on top of the 3,150 job cuts announced by Virgin itself in May, many of which were from the Gatwick base.
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Retaining slot portfolio, but for how long?
The Virgin boss notes that Gatwick has a special place in the heart of Virgin Atlantic. It’s the airport from which the airline launched more than three decades ago. More importantly, if the airline wants to expand in future, it will need to retain a presence at Gatwick due to the lack of slots available in Heathrow. Weiss said,
“We’ve only suspended our flying out of Gatwick. We still have the slot portfolio, which is, of course, essential to flying out of Gatwick. And Gatwick has been a great place for Virgin Atlantic. It’s the historical launch of the airline 36 years ago with a flight to Newark. So Gatwick has a special place in our company history and hopefully we’ll resume.”
Weiss admitted that the suspension of the 80/20 slot rules have been instrumental in Virgin holding on to its landing slots at Gatwick. It’s not something that has pleased everyone, with Wizz Air CEO Josef Varadi speaking out about how the move is stifling potential competition. He has mooted basing up to 20 aircraft at his new Gatwick base, if slots were available, creating an estimated 1,000 jobs in the area.
Currently, the suspension of slot rules is in place until the end of the winter season in late March 2021. However, Gatwick’s airport bosses are pushing for the rule suspension not to continue in the summer 2021 season.
The Financial Times reports Stewart Wingate, chief executive at Gatwick, saying that,
“It is vital that the industry reverts back to using the 80/20 slot rule for the start of the summer season. [It would] ensure that the aviation market is competitive and airlines are incentivised to trade or hand back unused slots so that other airlines can fly them instead, including new market entrants”.
However, Airlines UK has said that the slot waiver remains absolutely necessary and is allowing airlines to match their flying schedules to passenger demand. Reinstatement of the slot rule too soon could see airlines forced to operate ‘ghost flights’ to preserve their slots, something that would emit needless carbon and force unnecessary financial stress on already struggling companies.