Virgin Atlantic today announced that the flights between Heathrow and Manchester airports would start in March next year, in an attempt to take a chunk of the short-haul market away from British Airways. This will be the first time Richard Branson’s airline has had a crack at the internal flights market, and the firm explicitly referred to ‘providing competition to BA’s short haul service.’ With just seven months before flights are due to start operation, it’s full throttle for Branson’s baby.
The operation will be oceans apart from the flagship Virgin Atlantic routes, which have been in service since 1984. Obviously flights are likely to be much cheaper and the planes smaller, but Virgin says that of all the people flying on this route, currently 65% of them then take connecting flights to other destinations. It is this connecting route market the Virgin wants in on. The airline plans to 'wet lease' small Airbuses (A319/A320) to fly on the route. Wet leasing means leasing plane, crew, maintenance and insurance, as opposed to dry leasing which is plane only.
Interestingly, the airline denied that the introduction of the route was anything to do with Virgin Trains having lost out on the West Coast railway bid last week. FirstGroup won the contract amid controversy about who could actually deliver better pricing and who could best afford it.
Regardless, execs seem to have big plans for the future of the new short haul business. CEO Steve Ridgway said: ‘Flying between Heathrow and Manchester is just the start for Virgin Atlantic’s new short haul operation.’ He also described BA as ‘overly-dominant’, and said introducing the new flights was important to ‘keep fares low and give consumers a genuine choice of airline to fly to Heathrow and beyond.’ In typical Virgin style, the talk is feisty.
Notably, BA has only had an effective monopoly on this route since it bought BMI – the two used to compete with each other. Nonetheless, BA and Virgin have had a continuous gripe with each other since the ‘80s, when Branson first came along to threaten what was essentially a BA monopoly on the Atlantic route. He even had to sell his first business, Virgin Records, to finance his battle against the incumbent airline. Eventually BA was turned over for dirty tricks, but the bad blood still remains as they fight for market share on the trans-Atlantic route.
But with Virgin getting in on the domestic market now, too, the dent in BA’s profits definitely won’t just be a drop in the ocean…