The present pandemic situation has rendered long-haul international travel as near-impossibility as far as Australia is concerned. However, before the onset of COVID-19, the UK-Australia market was a lucrative one. In addition to flag carriers British Airways and Qantas, Virgin Atlantic also flew between London and Sydney. Let’s take a look at the nature of this service, and why it came to an end after a decade of operations.
Routed via Hong Kong
Virgin Atlantic launched its service from London Heathrow (LHR) to Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport (SYD) in 2004. Of course, at this time, the non-stop UK-Australia services like those in Qantas’s ‘Project Sunrise‘ were years away from even being considered.
Therefore, as was (and remains) the norm on this lucrative intercontinental corridor, Virgin Atlantic needed to build an Asian stopover into its new route. For UK and Australian flag carriers British Airways and Qantas, this typically means a brief visit to Singapore. However, Virgin Atlantic took a different approach, and chose Hong Kong.
This made most from an operational perspective, as Virgin Atlantic does not fly to Singapore. On the other hand, the service to Sydney was able to function as an extension of the airline’s existing Heathrow-Hong Kong Chek Lap Kok Internationa (HKG) route.
According to Routesonline, the schedule for Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A340-600-operated London-Hong Kong-Sydney service at the time of its closure was as follows.
- VS200 – London Heathrow 22:30 – Hong Kong 17:50 (+1), Hong Kong 19:20 (+1) – Sydney 06:35 (+2).
- VS201 – Sydney 14:25 – Hong Kong 21:55, Hong Kong 23:25 – London Heathrow 05:25 (+1).
The end of an era
After operating the Heathrow-Hong Kong-Sydney route for around 10 years, Virgin Atlantic announced in February 2014 that it would cease these operations. The final iterations of the service took place three months later, on May 4th and 5th of that year.
According to the BBC, this left BA as the only European carrier flying between Australia and Europe via Asia. It is important to note that Virgin Atlantic only withdrew the second leg of the flight, and has continued flying to Hong Kong. Regarding the decision to end its Australia-bound services, the airline’s CEO at the time, Craig Kreeger, stated that:
“Despite the best efforts of our employees, external factors such as increasing costs and a weakening Australian dollar have affected our profitability. These are still difficult times for the airline industry, and, as part of our strategy to operate more efficiently, we need to deploy our aircraft to routes with the right level of demand to be financially viable.”
A potential return
Despite it now being around seven years since Virgin Atlantic withdrew its Sydney flights, there may be more to come from the airline on this corridor. Indeed, in September 2019, the airline announced a significant proposed expansion to its long-haul network. It was planning for this to come into effect after the completion of Heathrow’s third runway.
Among the new destinations touted in this expansion was a return to Sydney. Virgin Atlantic even had plans to fly even further, with the growth reaching as far as Auckland, New Zealand. However, with the opening of the new runway likely being a good 10 to 15 years away, the airline’s return to Sydney is unlikely to occur any time soon.
Did you ever fly between London and Sydney with Virgin Atlantic? If so, how did it compare to other carriers along this intercontinental corridor? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.