After ten years plus of long-haul flying, Virgin Australia unceremoniously ended its international flying in March 2020. The airline has since confirmed it is returning to short-haul international flying but remains undecided on long-haul. As Virgin Australia’s mixed history of long-haul flying indicates, there is no guarantee Virgin Australia ever will.
Except for its successful Los Angeles flights, Virgin Australia has always had a complicated relationship with long-haul flying. Routes began, and routes quickly ended. Early last year, Virgin Australia’s Hong Kong flights were wrapping up with the airline planning a switch to Tokyo.
But the Tokyo flights never happened – COVID-19 and the travel downturn saw to that. Nearly two years down the track, Virgin Australia still remains undecided about its long-haul future.
“Whether we go back into long-haul or not is an open question,” Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said at this week’s CAPA Australia Pacific Aviation Summit.
Mixed long-haul flying results for Virgin Australia
The signing of an open skies agreement between Australia and the US in 2008 gave Virgin Australia (then called Virgin Blue) the opening it needed to commence long-haul flying. Virgin Blue set up a subsidiary airline called V Australia, got an air operator’s certificate, bought five Boeing 777-300ERs, and began between Sydney and Los Angeles in 2009.
Flights between Brisbane and Los Angeles and Melbourne and Los Angeles commenced soon after. Over the next ten plus years, these routes would do well and underpin the other, less successful Virgin Australia long-haul flying adventures.
In 2011, V Australia was absorbed into its parent airline, which was rebranding to Virgin Australia. By then, V Australia Boeing 777 flights to Johannesburg had come and gone.
Flights to Phuket ended in 2015, and the short-lived Perth – Abu Dhabi route ended in 2017. The following year, Virgin Australia set course for Hong Kong. The Hong Kong flights, which operated from Sydney and Melbourne, were designed to connect to Virgin Atlantic’s London flights and provide Virgin Australia with a springboard into China.
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Competitors outgun Virgin Australia on many long-haul routes
Virgin Australia’s long-haul product was very well-regarded in the latter half of the last decade. In addition to the five Boeing 777s, Virgin Australia had leased a dozen Airbus A330-200s. The inflight product on both was outstanding.
Outstanding product or not, Virgin Australia never had the network reach, capacity, or offshore brand recognition to outgun the dominant players on routes to destinations like Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi.
In 2019, Virgin Australia dropped its Hong Kong/China strategy and pivoted to Tokyo Haneda, signing a partnership deal with All Nippon Airways (ANA). Those flights were due to start in 2020 but ultimately never took off.
Since then, VirginAustralia has sold off its five Boeing 777s and returned the Airbus A330s to their lessors. It leaves Virgin Australia without the capacity to operate long-haul flights even if they wanted to.
A long-haul conundrum for Virgin Australia
It presents as something of a conundrum for Virgin Australia. They obviously don’t want to go back to the spin cycle of failed routes, but the success of the Los Angeles flights and the potential of the Tokyo flights might be giving Virgin’s executives some long-haul aspirations.
But a more likely model is building up Virgin Australia’s already robust network of international airline partnerships that offer codeshare, through travel, and reciprocal frequent flyer benefits. Current key international partner airlines include Delta, Hawaiian, ANA, Singapore Airlines, Etihad, and Air Canada. Between them, they will get Virgin Australia passengers to most parts of the world.
“We will have strong (international) partnerships,” said Jayne Hrdlicka at CAPA. “We’ve had them historically, and we will have them in the future.”
But ultimately, can Virgin Australia resist having its own metal on long-haul routes in the future? Perhaps Brisbane – Los Angeles and Melbourne – Los Angeles to complement the daily Delta flights from Sydney? After all, those routes were among the handful to do well in the past.