Virgin Atlantic Eyes Huge Heathrow Growth

Virgin Atlantic have set their sights on becoming the UK’s second flag carrier, rivalling British Airways for capacity and status. Their purchase of Flybe has sent a strong message to the policymakers – they’re serious about expansion and need more capacity at London’s Heathrow Airport to become the best they can be.

Virgin Atlantic
Virgin Atlantic want more Heathrow slots. Photo: Virgin

Virgin have always been something of a cocky underdog in the UK. Against all odds they’ve taken on BA, despite huge differences in resources, size and profitability. They’ve been unafraid to compete on BA’s home turf at Heathrow, and to offer up competition to the flag carriers lucrative transatlantic routes.

Now, Virgin have their sights set on being ‘the UK’s second flag carrier’ and want to acquire more Heathrow landing slots to aid their expansion. Unfortunately for them, there aren’t any available and aren’t likely to be until the third runway is built.

Despite this, Virgin are determined to expand aggressively with new fleet, new routes and strategic investments. While the runway may be some years off, their ambition to become bigger and better will not be curbed.

Virgin’s plan for growth

One of the most notable strategic investments for growth is their recent purchase of UK regional airline Flybe. The Virgin led consortium, dubbed Connect Airways, saved more than 2,000 jobs with the last minute rescue deal, and with it the opportunity to feed passengers into their hubs both at Manchester and Heathrow.

Virgin’s acquisition of Flybe was a strategic move. Photo: Wikimedia

Aside of the investment in Flybe, Virgin are planning new routes, planes and capacity across their network. They are investing in Manchester and plan to increase capacity there by 20% from May onwards. New routes are being launched, such as their Tel Aviv route, live from September, and Sao Paulo from 2020.

Virgin codeshare
Virgin began codesharing with Air France-KLM in March. Photo: Virgin

They’ve also indicated that they want to extend their transatlantic partnership with Air France-KLM later in the year too. Although they began codesharing with the group in March, they are still waiting for US regulatory approval for the deal.

New suites on the a350
The new Upper Class suite on the A350. Photo: Virgin

And then, of course, they’re expecting delivery of 12 Airbus A350s over the next few years. With new cabins onboard and 30% better fuel efficiency than the 747s they’ll replace, these new aircraft offer a route to expansion and better profits too.

Waiting for the third runway

Right now, British Airways and their parent IAG hold around 55% of the slots at Heathrow. In an interview with Travel Weekly, Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic chief executive, commented on the British Airways dominance at Heathrow, suggesting that more competition is required:

“Britain needs a second flag carrier from Heathrow [and] we need significant slots at Heathrow… We need to change the slot regime at Heathrow. We are pushing this forward. I’m sure it will change [and] we are the only credible carrier [to take advantage].”

Shai Weiss
Shai Weiss took over as Virgin CEO on January 1st. Photo: Virgin

Unfortunately for Virgin, expansion at Heathrow will only be possible once more slots are released. And for more slots, more runway is needed; specifically, the long awaited third runway. Virgin expect authorities to make a decision in the next 12 – 24 months on the runway, and in the meantime,  they are working on demonstrating just how serious they are.

The purchase of Flybe was undoubtedly a firm demonstration of Virgin’s commitment to feeder traffic. Whether it will have any influence over future plans for the third runway remains to be seen. In the meantime, we look forward to seeing the beloved British brand go from strength to strength.