Virgin Australia is still hoping to launch flights to Japan’s Tokyo-Haneda airport when Australia’s strict travel restrictions are lifted. The airline announced last year that it would be commencing the route in March 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic and subsequent border closures in Australia forced Virgin to scrap its plans just weeks before the launch.
Virgin Australia wins Haneda slot
In the lead up to the 2020 Tokyo summer Olympic Games, Virgin Australia had applied to the International Air Services Commission (IASC) for one of the two available landing slots at Tokyo-Haneda. The airline proposed that, instead of giving both slots to Qantas, who would simply operate yet another two daily services between Australia and Japan from Sydney and Melbourne, they would operate a daily flight direct from Brisbane.
The IASC — Australia’s federal government body that oversees the country’s international airline activity, including routes and airport landing and takeoff slots — granted the airline one Haneda flight per day in each direction. The commission imposed several conditions, including that the capacity must be taken up from no later than March 29, 2020.
Virgin celebrated by announcing that it was launching its direct flights from Brisbane to Tokyo in March 2020. The daily flights were to be operated by an Airbus A330-200, offering 20 business class seats and 255 economy seats. The airline also said it had partnered with All Nippon Airways (ANA) to provide passengers with the option to connect with other Japanese destinations. Virgin Australia Group managing director and CEO Paul Scurrah said at the time,
“I’m delighted to be announcing our new flights to Japan and bringing our competitive airfares and award-winning service to this market for the very first time.”
However, Bain Capital took the decision to eliminate the A330 from the airline’s fleet earlier this year. Reports suggest that the two remaining 777s will also be removed from the fleet, leaving the airline with no suitable aircraft to make the trip. Bain would have to lease a widebody, should the route go ahead.
The IASC extends Haneda take-up deadline again
However, the celebrations were short-lived, as the world was gripped by the COVID -19 pandemic and Australia closed its borders and imposed strict travel restrictions. As Virgin was unable to meet the deadline for commencing the route, it asked for an extension. The IASC initially pushed the date back to June 15, then to October 31.
With the ongoing border closures, the airline could still not launch its Brisbane to Haneda flights and requested that the IASC extend the date to October 31, 2021. On Monday, December 7, 2020, the commission issued a resolution that “that the capacity issued under Determination  IASC 119 is to be utilized from no later than 31 March 2021, or such other date approved by the Commission.”
With the gradual easing of restrictions and growing optimism about COVID-19 vaccines, Virgin Australia will be seeking to finally get the route off the ground in 2021.
Virgin Australia looks to the future
After a turbulent year, Virgin Australia is looking to a better 2021. With the onset of the pandemic, the airline collapsed in April. As prospective buyers vied for control of the carrier, it managed to maintain a small flight schedule. With the announcement in July that Bain Capital had taken control, Virgin Australia could look to the future.
It had looked like Qantas might step in and take Virgin’s corporate customer and high-value frequent flyers. But with its relaunch, Virgin is positioning itself as a value airline, occupying the middle ground between the pricier Qantas and low-cost Jetstar that will see it retaining its customer base and facing a somewhat rosier future.
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