ATLANTA — Virgin Atlantic welcomed the state-of-the-art Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner into its fleet at an event in Atlanta that also commemorated the launch of the carrier’s new London Heathrow-Atlanta route. Founder Sir Richard Branson was on hand to welcome Virgin’s first 787-9 Birthday Girl to the fleet.
Birthday Girl is the first of 21 787-9 aircraft Virgin Atlantic will welcome to the fleet in the coming years. The addition of the 787-9 to the fleet comes at a time when many carriers, including Virgin Atlantic, are retiring older and less fuel-efficient aircraft such as the 747 and the Airbus A340, both which are currently in Virgin Atlantic’s fleet. CEO Craig Kreeger stated that the new 787-9 will be up to “27 percent more fuel efficient compared to the aircraft it will be replacing.”
The new 787-9 will seat 264 passengers (two less that Virgin Atlantic’s A330-300) in a 31 upper class, 35 premium economy, and 198 economy class configuration. When asked if the 787-9 will rotate schedules with the A330-300 similar to how Virgin Atlantic’s 747’s and A340-600’s do, Kreeger stated that “although unintentional, it is very likely that the 787-9 will operate on A330 routes and vice versa.”
Virgin also unveiled an updated Upper Class “Dream Suite” that gives customers more space and access to cutting-edge technology such as personal 24-inch touchscreen monitors at each seat. Virgin Atlantic will fit 31 Dream Suites seats in roughly the same space as 33 fit on the A330.
Onboard the 787-9, Virgin created a dedicated area to serve premium economy passengers called the Wonder Wall. Here passengers can get up and stretch their legs all while getting a drink or snack mid flight. Several other features include a walk-up bar as found on all Virgin Atlantic aircraft, satellite WiFi capable of connecting passengers even over large bodies of water, and ambient mood lighting that Virgin has become famous for.
During this event, Branson got his first taste of what the Dreamliner has to offer. A private tour was offered to him by Virgin Atlantic’s design staff shortly after the event. Branson, who was not able to participate in the inaugural flight due to a schedule conflict, toured the flight deck, all three classes and even took a break from his busy schedule to take in a drink at the luxurious upper class bar.
The 787-9 will replace Virgin Atlantic’s last two A340-300s. Additional 787-9 aircraft will be used for growth primarily in trans-Atlantic markets such as Detroit, San Francisco, and Atlanta. As more new 787-9s arrive, Virgin Atlantic will face an increasingly large problem regarding slots at the already busy London Heathrow Airport.
During a Q and A session, Branson addressed the issue by taking a strong stance favoring the building of a much-needed third runway at Heathrow. Currently with no room to expand at Heathrow, the carrier has had to cut routes in order to start new ones, including the London-Atlanta route. As an alternative, Virgin Atlantic will have to expand at the less-favorable London-Gatwick Airport, where the airline also has a hub. It is also planning to expand service from Manchester as more planes arrive.
At the conclusion of the celebration, showcased the new Virgin Atlantic flight attendant uniforms designed by Vivienne Westwood. Branson also gave news regarding that Virgin Atlantic has converted five 787-9 options to firm orders, bringing the total number of the type in the fleet from 16 to 21.
The celebration of the 787-9 was only half of the days festivities, with the other half reserved to welcoming Virgin Atlantic to Atlanta and the ceremonial beginning of an increased partnership with 49 percent stakeholder Delta Air Lines.
Atlanta Airport General Manager Miguel Southwell, along with Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, were on hand to welcome Virgin Atlantic to the city of Atlanta. Shortly after Branson’s grand introduction, featuring a choir singing “London’s Calling” by The Clash along with two flight attendants bearing flags from both the United Kingdom and the United States, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed joked that he “hopes his staff was watching” and to “take notes.” The addition of the London Heathrow to Atlanta route was the first of several routes Virgin Atlantic will add in cooperation with partner Delta Air Lines.
Virgin Atlantic will be taking over the London Heathrow-Atlanta from Delta as both carriers overhaul their trans-Atlantic schedules to better suit existing markets. Growth in the Atlanta market will not end there for Virgin Atlantic. It also plans to take over the Manchester-Atlanta route from Delta using an A330-300 starting March 29, 2015. Additional growth will come this summer, when Virgin Atlantic goes to two daily flights between London Heathrow to Atlanta. Customers flying both carriers will be able to earn frequent flyer points for either carrier through this codeshare.
Virgin Atlantic will be the first carrier to utilize the new incentive based program recently passed by Atlanta’s city council designed to attract foreign carriers to start routes to Atlanta. “The programs overall goal is to make Atlanta a more diversified international destination,” said the airport’s Southwell, while also dismissing rumors that Delta is unhappy about the potential competition this program may bring. As part of the incentive program, Virgin Atlantic will not have to pay landing fees for one year in Atlanta, resulting in savings of up to $600,000. Currently Virgin Atlantic is the only carrier to use this incentive program.