The Virgin Group Airlines: A Summary

The Virgin Group is a company that has its fingers in many pies. Since its inception, it has made waves in various industries, including banking, commercial radio, and motorsport. When it comes to transport, it has been a household name in the world of rail travel, with previous franchises on both sides of the Atlantic. But what about its many airlines? As we shall discover, it has applied its name to more carriers than you might remember.

Virgin Atlantic, Airbus A350, Caribbean
Virgin Atlantic is arguably the group’s best-known airline. Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

Virgin Atlantic

Despite having applied its name to many airlines over the years, just two are presently active. The oldest of these is UK-based Virgin Atlantic, which dates back to 1984. Its maiden voyage was a Boeing 747-operated journey from London Gatwick to Newark in June that year. Amid the coronavirus pandemic, the airline retired its last 747s last year.

The ongoing global health crisis has also forced Virgin Atlantic to reshuffle its operating bases. Despite having started off at Gatwick, it closed its base there in May last year. As such, it presently operates out of London Heathrow and Manchester instead.

The airline used to operate the Airbus A340, but its fleet now consists of twin-engine widebodies. According to ch-aviation.com, its 37-strong fleet is made up of 13 A330s (with eight A330neos on order), seven A350s (plus three on order), and 17 Boeing 787s.

Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747
2020 saw the end of 36 years of 747 operations at Virgin Atlantic. Photo: Jake Hardiman | Simple Flying

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Virgin Australia

The Virgin Group’s other active airline at present actually has a larger fleet than Virgin Atlantic. Known as Virgin Australia, this carrier currently has two Boeing 737-700s and 49 737-800s at its disposal. It also used to operate widebodies like the Airbus A330 and Boeing 777, before the impacts of COVID-19 forced it to right-size and cut its long-haul flights.

The airline came into existence in 2000 as Virgin Blue, and was co-founded by then-CEO Brett Godfrey and, of course, Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson. Having initially operated two Boeing 737-400s between Brisbane and Sydney, it grew throughout the 2000s before taking on its present identity in 2011. Its current CEO is Jayne Hrdlicka.

Virgin Australia Boeing 777
Virgin Australia flew the Boeing 777 from 2011 to 2020. Photo: Tomás Del Coro via Flickr

Virgin Atlantic Little Red

Now we move on to Virgin Group airlines that are no longer in existence. You may remember that Virgin Atlantic had a short-lived regional subsidiary known as Little Red, which operated between 2013 and 2015. This carrier aimed to feed travelers from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, and Manchester onto long-haul Virgin Atlantic flights at Heathrow.

The airline utilized a fleet of four Airbus A320s, which it leased from Aer Lingus. The Irish flag carrier also provided pilots for these services, although the cabin crew came from McGinley Aviation. Sadly, low load factors led to heavy losses at the airline, with these two aspects soon spelling the end for Little Red. It operated its last fights in September 2015.

Richard Branson Virgin Atlantic Little Red
Richard Branson traveled on the inaugural Little Red service to Edinburgh. Photo: Getty Images

Virgin Sun Airlines

As it happens, Virgin Atlantic and its Little Red regional subsidiary are not the only UK-based airlines to have borne the Virgin Group’s name over the years. Indeed, the company also established a charter carrier known as Virgin Sun Airlines in 1998.

This carrier operated flights to leisure destinations throughout Europe. The majority of these were in Spain, although Austria, France, Greece, and Portugal also got a look in. The airline had operating bases, like Virgin Atlantic, at Gatwick and Manchester.

Virgin Sun Airlines’ fleet consisted, at its peak, of three Airbus A320s and one A321. Passengers were offered an exotic menu onboard including cocktails and ice lollies, but profits didn’t hit expected levels. As such, Virgin sold the airline to Air 2000, which became First Choice before merging into Thomsonfly. Its last flights were in November 2001.

Virgin Sun Airbus A320
One of Virgin Sun’s three Airbus A320s. Photo: Aero Icarus via Wikimedia Commons

Virgin Express

Did you know that Belgian flag carrier Brussels Airlines’ roots partially come from a Virgin Group airline? Virgin Express came into existence in 1996, when Richard Branson purchased EBA (EuroBelgian Airlines) and its fleet of Boeing 737s.

Operating low-cost flights out of Brussels, it quickly began to challenge Sabena and SN Brussels Airlines. At one point, the carrier even had a Paris-based French subsidiary called Virgin Express France, which was formerly known as Air Provence Charter.

However, after just eight years, Virgin sold the airline to its competitor SN Brussels in 2004. It stayed in operation under its own identity for the time being, before a merger was announced in 2006. This took place in 2007, and formed today’s Brussels Airlines.

Virgin Express Boeing 737
Virgin Express operated an all-Boeing 737 fleet. Photo: Dean Morley via Flickr

Virgin Nigeria

Moving into Nigeria, the Virgin Group also founded Virgin Nigeria as a joint venture with investors in the country in 2004. Its purpose was effectively to replace former operator Nigeria Airways, and it was based out of Lagos Airport (LOS).

Virgin Nigeria commenced operations the year after its foundation, in June 2005. Over the course of its history, it flew a diverse fleet of regional, narrowbody, and widebody aircraft to a correspondingly wide range of destinations. Even quadjets were not off the cards, and it operated a pair of leased Virgin Atlantic Airbus A340s in 2005 and 2006.

Virgin Nigeria Embraer
Virgin Nigeria flew two Embraer 190s. Photo: Paul Nelhams via Flickr

Virgin eventually withdrew its stake in the airline between 2008 and 2010. This saw the carrier take on two new identities, namely Nigerian Eagle Airlines, and then Air Nigeria. Safety checks grounded the airline in June 2012, and it ceased operations that September.

Virgin America

Finally, the Virgin Group also used to have a presence in the US in the form of its own airline there. Known as Virgin America, this low-cost carrier commenced operations in August 2007. Its hubs were in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and it added Dallas as a focus city.

Virgin America Airbus A320
Virgin America operated various designs from the Airbus A320 family. Photo: Tomás Del Coro via Flickr

After just under 11 years of operations, April 2018 saw Virgin America merge into Alaska Airlines. At the time of the merger, the carrier was mainly flying Airbus A320s, although it also had smaller contingents of A319s and A321neos.

A 30-aircraft A320neo order was also in place at the time of the merger. However, Alaska Airlines chose to cancel this in favor of the Boeing 737 MAX 9. Nonetheless, the Seattle-based carrier did receive Virgin America’s remaining six A321neo orders.

How many Virgin Group carriers have you flown with? Do you have a particular favorite? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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