MIAMI — Virgin Atlantic is one of those airlines that inspires either great passion or total nonchalance in its passengers. Some travellers really resonate with the glammed-up look and feel, while others don’t find the bells and whistles make that much of a difference to them.
In recent history, the turn of the decade and the arrival of the 2010s weren’t the best time for the iconoclastic Virgin. It pioneered both angled lie-flat business class seating in 2000 and the fully flat business class bed in 2003, but just as Virgin launched its brand new Clubhouse and Upper Class Wing fast-track in 2007 for its business class passengers and frequent flyers, BA’s “Fortress Heathrow” home moved to the brand-new Terminal 5, “gifted” to it according to Virgin figurehead Richard Branson.
Despite well-publicised operational difficulties when T5 opened, and the need to keep some flights in other terminals as BA outgrew its new home, consolidation of British Airways into Terminal 5 has given it a number of advantages over its smaller rival.
In terms of size, Virgin is a tiny force of sappers at Fortress Heathrow: just 13 percent of the BA fleet of nearly 300 aircraft, compared with Virgin Atlantic’s 40. British Airways has more Boeing 777-200ER aircraft alone than Virgin has in its entire fleet.
As a result of the 2012 takeover of its UK and European feed partner bmi (the former British Midland) by British Airways, a significant proportion of Virgin’s London-connection traffic filtered away, not just to British Airways, but to other European airlines as they increased feeder services to the UK’s regional airports.
Production delays also hit Virgin Atlantic, in both its Boeing 787 Dreamliner program (intended to replace its oldest and fuel-hungriest aircraft) and its internally produced Dream Suite, constructed by the threesixty design house that was later sold to Contour.
Competition regulators required BA to give up some former bmi slots for domestic feed, and Virgin tried its own branded Little Red services to northern UK destinations with a capital-light wetleased operation to Aer Lingus.
After the 2012 deal where Delta Air Lines took a 49 percent stake formerly owned by Singapore Airlines, Little Red was determined to be a no-go and is in the last throes of being shut down, though surprisingly before its “remedy slots”, which are route-specific, could be transferred to general use Heathrow slots. The combined Virgin-Delta decisionmakers clearly felt that a further period of losses wouldn’t make up for the sale of the slots.
With 2014 cuts to long-standing long-haul legacy routes Sydney, Tokyo, Vancouver, Mumbai and Cape Town, the Delta-era Virgin Atlantic’s role appears to have clarified: to be Delta’s second immunised transatlantic joint venture partnership.
The fallout from the US3 vs ME3 Open Skies debate will determine whether that role changes to provide a semi-internal, immunised, English-speaking natural connection at LHR for Delta flights to the Middle East and South Asia, in which case look for Virgin to try to provide some kind of fast-track option for the notoriously dreadful UK transfer experience.
Delta has transferred operations on the key JV routes of New York, Boston and Los Angeles to Virgin’s facilities in Terminal 3, which offer a significant advantage over the SkyTeam alliance’s Terminal 4 hub for business class passengers and frequent flyers in particular.
In onboard passenger experience terms, the Virgin hard product is fairly standard in economy: 31” throughout, with 3-4-3 on the 747, 2-4-2 on the A330/A340, and 3-3-3 on the 787 Dreamliner. In premium economy, Virgin — the airline that introduced the category in the 1990s with Mid Class — the seat is also standard: the usual recliner.
Upper Class varies by aircraft, with the most room on the Upper Class Suites on the 747 and 787 fleets, followed by a tossup between the high-density A330 interwoven herringbone Dream Suites and the narrower A340 version of the original Suites. Interestingly, Virgin abandoned its Dream Suites, announced with much fanfare in 2012, to return to its original Upper Class Suite on the 787.
Yet with a new top-notch English sparkling wine replacing its long-standing Lanson Champagne in Upper Class on the newly arrived Dreamliners, the retirement of its oldest A340 aircraft (one of which still had looping, unpausable video), and a new transatlantic strategic direction, is this the time when Virgin Atlantic gets its mojo back?