With Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Atlantic in the news lately following its filing for Chapter 15 bankruptcy protection in the United States, we thought we would look at a previous Virgin failure. Virgin Sun Airlines was founded in 1998 as a charter airline to ferry British vacationers to sunny Mediterranean and Canary Islands destinations.
Based at Manchester Airport (MAN) in the northwest of England and Gatwick Airport (LGW) just south of London, Virgin Sun commenced operations in 1999. The airline’s bright yellow and traditional ‘Virgin red’ tailed aircraft certainly caught the eye on the apron. It leased two Airbus A320-200s to offer something never seen before from a charter airline.
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Virgin Sun Airlines handed out cocktails
Looking to appeal to those on their annual holiday away from the wet and miserable British Isles, someone had the bright idea to get people in the holiday mood as soon as they boarded the aircraft. Virgin Sun Airlines did this by ditching the traditional drinks and meal service and replacing it with something a little more appealing.
Once all the passengers had boarded, they were offered a complimentary Sea Breeze cocktail of vodka, cranberry, and grapefruit or a non-alcoholic version of the same. On flights that departed the United Kingdom early in the morning, passengers had the choice of bacon, sausage or vegetarian sausage sandwich with condiments.
Inbound passengers got baked potatoes
For flights later in the day, the breakfast sandwich was substituted for hot dogs and potato wedges followed by a slice of chocolate cake that Virgin Sun referred to as “gateau.”
On inbound flights returning to the United Kingdom, passengers were given fruit-flavored ice lollies (popsicles) rather than the cocktail. And later, instead of the breakfast sandwich or hot dog, it was baked potatoes with a choice of three toppings and the same chocolate cake they would have had on the outbound flight. Tea and coffee were served throughout the flight, with passengers given the option of having whipped cream sprayed on their coffee from an aerosol.
With flights to mainly Spain, Greece, and Portugal, the start-up airlines’ first year went so well that they leased a new plane. This time, it was a larger Airbus A321-200 which could carry more passengers.
The novelty soon wore off
Despite a promising start, the novelty soon wore off, and Virgin Sun found itself having to compete with low-cost carriers like easyJet and Ryanair. Finally, after just two years in business, Virgin Sun Airlines ceased operations. It was eventually sold to fellow British charter airline Air2000, which became First Choice Airways. Eventually, this airline merged with Thomsonfly to form Thomson Airways in 2008, now better known as TUI.
Looking at Virgin Sun’s outcome, it would appear as if the idea of a niche airline that would appeal to working-class Britain was not well thought out. Sure, in the beginning, the gimmick worked well, but it was never going to compete with Ryanair’s business model.
Did you ever get to fly on Virgin Sun Airlines? If so, please tell us what you thought of the experience in the comments.