What If Virgin Atlantic Had Bought British Airways’ Concordes?

British Airways retired its Concorde aircraft in October 2003. When it announced this date, Virgin Atlantic had hoped to purchase the airline’s seven examples of the iconic supersonic airliner. Indeed, its founder, Sir Richard Branson, even appealed for support for the government in this matter. The attempt was ultimately unsuccessful, but how might things have been different had the purchase gone through?

Virgin A340 British Airways Concorde Heathrow 2003 Getty
Virgin Atlantic aircraft could often be seen alongside Concorde at London Heathrow. However, it never operated the Anglo-French supersonic airliner itself. Photo: Getty Images

Branson’s Concorde bid

British Airways and Air France announced on April 10th, 2003 that they would be retiring their Aérospatiale/BAC Concorde by the end of the year. The principal reasons for this included the crash of Air France 4590 in July 2000, and the general post-9/11 downturn in the airline industry. Maintenance costs for the type were also prohibitively high.

Virgin Atlantic’s enterprising founder, Sir Richard Branson, saw this as an opportunity to bring supersonic travel to his airline. CNN reported the following day that he planned to offer British Airways “the same price that they were given them for – one pound” for each of its Concorde aircraft.

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Richard Branson Concorde Heathrow 1991 Getty
Virgin Atlantic commenced operations at London Heathrow in 1991. To mark the occasion, it placed Virgin branding on the airport’s British Airways Concorde model. Photo: Getty Images

This was equivalent to just $1.57 at the time, and British Airways promptly dismissed the bid, insisting the aircraft were not for sale. Branson later increased his offer to £1 million and then £5 million for each retired aircraft.

Failed government support appeal

The BBC reported that he also appealed for support from the British government in this venture. Specifically, he claimed that a clause in British Airways’ privatization agreement from the 1980s stated that “if BA no longer wanted Concorde, then another British airline should be allowed to operate the supersonic fleet.”

However, government officials were unable to find evidence of such a clause. Subsequently, when British Airways ceased Concorde operations in October 2003, the aircraft went straight into retirement and preservation.

British Airways, Boeing 747, London Heathrow
Virgin Atlantic had wanted to become the second UK airline to operate Concorde, after flag carrier British Airways. Photo: Getty Images

What could have been

Although Virgin Atlantic was unsuccessful in obtaining British Airways’ Concorde aircraft, it is interesting to consider how things might have otherwise been. According to the BBC, the airline’s plans for Concorde operations included a two-class cabin.

In this setup, standard fares would have been cheaper than those offered by BA and Air France, with first class being more expensive. This way, the awe and majesty of supersonic flight would have been more accessible to the paying public than ever before.

Concorde would also have been well suited to Virgin Atlantic’s network. One of the airline’s most important routes has always been London-New York. Indeed, its first-ever flight in 1984 connected Gatwick and Newark.

Virgin 747
Although it never operated Concorde, Virgin Atlantic is no stranger to industry-defining aircraft. The iconic Boeing 747 was an integral part of its fleet between 1986 and 2020. Photo: Getty Images

It later expanded its network to Heathrow and New York JFK, which was BA’s flagship route for the type. As such, Virgin Atlantic would have been able to operate Concorde between airports that were already equipped with suitable infrastructure to handle the iconic supersonic airliner.

However, where the airline would have struggled is the upkeep of the aircraft. Its expensive maintenance costs had been too much for the much larger carriers of British Airways and Air France. As such, it is hard to see how a smaller carrier such as Virgin Atlantic would have kept on top of these costs. This is particularly crucial when one considers that spare parts for Concorde had stopped being supplied in 2003. Nonetheless, a supersonic airliner bearing Virgin Atlantic’s striking red tail and interior would surely have made for an impressive sight.

Did you ever fly on Concorde? How do you think things would have turned out for Virgin Atlantic had its purchase gone through? Let us know your experiences and thoughts in the comments.