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Virgin Atlantic Airways

Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. (operating as Virgin Atlantic) is a British airline which is owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Group (51%) and Singapore Airlines (49%). It operates long-haul routes between the United Kingdom and North America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and Australia from its main bases at London Heathrow and London Gatwick. Virgin has a smaller base at Manchester Airport. The company holds a United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority Type A Operating Licence, which permits it to carry passengers, cargo, and mail on aircraft with 20 or more seats. In the year to February 2007, Virgin Atlantic carried around 5.1 million passengers and made an annual profit of £46.8 million on turnover of £2,140 million.

History

Conception and birth

In 1982, Randolph Fields, an American-born lawyer, and Alan Hellary, a former chief pilot for Laker Airways, set up British Atlantic Airways as a direct successor to Laker Airways.

Fields got the idea of setting up an airline flying from London to the Falkland Islands in June 1982, when the Falklands War had just finished and there was an apparent need for such a service. However, Fields needed more expertise and so contacted Alan Hellary, Laker Airways' former chief pilot, who had thought about establishing a regular, commercial air service linking the UK and the Falkland Islands at the same time. Hellary was still in contact with many former colleagues who were out of work following the collapse of Laker Airways and these people continued working on the idea.

However the short runway at Port Stanley and the time it would take to improve it made the scheme unviable, so the idea of flying to the Falkland Islands was dropped. Instead, Hellary and Fields decided to try to secure a licence to fly from London Gatwick to JFK Airport in New York. A three-day hearing was held in May 1983. This application was rejected after both British Caledonian and BAA objected.

Despite the failure of the two earlier schemes, Hellary and Fields persevered, applying for a licence to fly between London Gatwick and Newark Liberty International Airport, just outside New York. It was planned that British Atlantic Airways would use a 380-seat DC-10 to fly to Newark. However, faced with the prospect of direct competition from People Express, a rapidly expanding post-deregulation "no frills" discount airline also based at Newark, they decided to secure additional funding before proceeding with their venture.

Fields met Richard Branson at a party in Central London during which he proposed a business partnership between Branson and himself to get his fledgling airline off the ground. After protracted and testy negotiations, Fields agreed to a reduced stake of 25% in the airline (renamed Virgin Atlantic) and became Virgin Atlantic's first chairman.

Following a series of disagreements over operational issues, Fields later agreed to be bought out for an initial sum of £1 million with further payment due upon Virgin's first dividend payment. As a result of a High Court action, this additional payment was received shortly before Fields' death from cancer in 1997.

On June 22 1984 Virgin Atlantic operated its inaugural scheduled air service between London Gatwick and Newark Liberty using a single, leased Boeing 747-200 (G-VIRG) formerly operated by Aerolineas Argentinas. The airline became profitable during its first year of operation, aided by sister company Virgin Records' ability to finance the lease of a relatively inexpensive, second-hand Boeing 747. The firm also timed the start of operations to take advantage of a full summer's season, which included the June to September peak season - by far the most profitable travel period of the year.

Formative years

In 1986, the airline added another Boeing 747 and started a second scheduled route from Gatwick to Miami. Additional aircraft were acquired and further routes were launched from Gatwick to New York-JFK (1988), Tokyo (1989), Los Angeles (1990), Boston (1991), and Orlando (1992). In 1987 a service was launched between Luton and Dublin using Viscount turbo-prop aircraft, but this was withdrawn around 1990. In 1988, Club Air operated two Boeing 727 aircraft on behalf of Virgin. They were leased from Eastern Airlines to also serve the Luton to Dublin route. These were withdrawn around 1990 too.

Later years

In March 2000 Virgin Group sold 49% of the airline's holding company to Singapore Airlines for £600.25 million. Virgin Group still owns the remaining 51%.

In June 2002, Virgin became the first airline to use the Airbus A340-600.

Virgin Atlantic carried 3.8 million passengers in 2003. This increased to 4.6 million in 2006, placing them seventh amongst UK airlines by this measure, but a clear second in passenger-miles, because of the long-haul nature of Virgin's operations. During the 2012 Summer Olympics bids, Virgin Atlantic attached "London 2012" decals to the rear of many of its aircraft in support of London's bid.

Virgin volunteered one of its Boeing 747s for a test of biofuels. In February 2008, the aircraft flew from Heathrow to Amsterdam, with no passengers, and 20% of power for one engine provided by a plant-based biofuel. The airline stated that it would expect to use biofuels based on algae in future.

Rivalry with British Airways

Virgin Atlantic has been a bitter rival of British Airways since its inception.

Background to opening up Heathrow

In January 1991, the UK Government opened the door for Virgin to operate from London Heathrow Airport when it decided to abolish the so-called "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules" in response to growing pressure from the industry.

Virgin Atlantic's precarious financial position during the early 1990s

According to some industry insider reports, Virgin Atlantic was facing increasing financial problems at that time. This was primarily the result of a sharp reduction in demand for air travel caused by the recession of the early 1990s as well as by the public's heightened fear to travel in the aftermath of the first Gulf War. Britain's then Conservative Government, which had presided over the spectacular collapse of the International Leisure Group (ILG) and its wholly owned subsidiary Air Europe resulting in 4,000 job losses and was well aware that Dan-Air was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy during that time, was desperate to avoid the collapse of another prominent independent British airline, especially if its public profile was as high as Virgin Atlantic's. The Government was also conscious of the fact that many of these independent airlines' employees, whose jobs were threatened by the harsh economic climate at the time, lived in marginal Conservative constituencies. Therefore, the Government decided to let Virgin Atlantic into Heathrow by abolishing the "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules" despite facing opposition from British Airways, whose senior management was exerting pressure on the Government to maintain the status quo.

The "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules"

The "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules" came into effect on April 1, 1978 and were applied retroactively from the beginning of April 1977. These rules were designed to achieve a "fairer" distribution of traffic between London Heathrow and London Gatwick, the UK's two main international gateway airports. The policy was aimed at increasing Gatwick's utilisation to help the airport make a profit.

The "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules" stated that airlines that did not already operate an international scheduled air service from/to Heathrow prior to April 1, 1977 would not be permitted to commence operations at that airport. Instead, they would have to use Gatwick for all their London-based operations. However, airlines that did not already operate at Heathrow prior to this law taking effect could still commence domestic scheduled services at the airport provided that the BAA, which ran both Heathrow and Gatwick on behalf of the Government, as well as the incumbent Secretary of State for Transport granted them permission to do so. In addition, the "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules" banned all new all-cargo as well as all charter flights from Heathrow as of 1 April, 1978.

BA's response

The decision to open up Heathrow to all newcomers - other than those governed by Bermuda II - angered BA's then chairman, Lord King, who stopped British Airways' donations to the Conservative Party, which was in power in Britain at the time, in protest. Lord King was furthermore angered by the United Kingdom Civil Aviation Authority's subsequent decision to transfer two pairs of unused slots British Airways held at Tokyo's Narita International Airport to his rival Virgin Atlantic to enable Virgin to increase its frequency between Heathrow and Tokyo from four to six weekly round-trips, thereby making it easier for Virgin to compete against British Airways. Lord King called the CAA's decision to transfer these slots to one of his rivals, which the Government had endorsed, "a confiscation of his company's property".

"Dirty tricks"

The Government's decision to abolish the "London Air Traffic Distribution Rules" and to let Virgin Atlantic commence operations at Heathrow in direct competition with British Airways then became the main trigger for BA's so-called "dirty tricks" campaign against Virgin.

In 1993 BA's PR director David Burnside published an article in "BA News", British Airways' internal staff magazine, which argued that Branson's protestations against British Airways were merely a publicity stunt. Branson sued British Airways for libel. BA settled out of court when its lawyers unearthed evidence of the extraordinary lengths to which the company went to try to "kill off" Virgin. BA was faced with a legal bill of up to £3m, damages to Branson of £500,000 and a further £110,000 to his airline. Branson divided his £500,000 amongst his staff in the so-called "BA bonus", each receiving £166.

In the 1990s, Virgin Atlantic jets were painted with the words "No-Way BA/AA" in opposition to the attempted merger between British Airways and American Airlines

In 1997, following British Airways' announcement that it was to remove the Union Flag from its tailfins in favour of world images, Virgin took advantage of the controversy provoked by introducing a union flag design on the winglets of its aircraft and changed the red dress on the "Scarlet Lady" on the nose of its aircraft to the union flag with the tag line "Britain's Flag Carrier". This was a "tongue-in-cheek" challenge to BA's traditional role as the UK's "flag carrier".

Relations with British Airways improved considerably with the arrival of Rod Eddington as BA CEO though the rivalry between the two airlines continued. Eddington replaced Robert Ayling, a key player in the "dirty tricks" affair who was dismissed by Lord Marshall, the long-serving BA chairman and Mr. Ayling's chief mentor, on behalf of BA's main institutional shareholders after BA had suffered its first net loss since privatisation on Mr. Ayling's watch during its 1999/2000 financial year.

In June 2006, a tip-off from Virgin Atlantic led US and UK competition authorities to investigate alleged price-fixing between Virgin Atlantic and British Airways. In August 2007, BA was fined a total of £271 million by the UK's Office of Fair Trading and the US Department of Justice over the allegations. Virgin Atlantic was not fined for its involvement in the price fixing as it was given immunity for reporting the cartel to regulators.

Destinations

75% of Virgin's flights operate from London Heathrow, with most of the remainder operating from London Gatwick. There are some services from Manchester Airport and one seasonal flight from Glasgow International Airport.

Fleet

Virgin Atlantic's fleet uses both Airbus and Boeing aircraft, with an average age of 6.7 years as of March 2008. Boeing 747-400s are used on all routes from Gatwick and Manchester. Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s are used interchangeably on routes from Heathrow.

In addition to having some Airbus A340-600 aircraft still on order, Virgin Atlantic also has orders for Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A380-800 aircraft for delivery beginning 2011 and 2013, respectively. The A380 was expected to enter service in 2006 but was delayed until 2009 because of problems within Airbus. Virgin then deferred its order to 2013, arguing that it wanted the aircraft to prove itself before it put its own A380s into operation.

The order for fifteen 787-9s, with options on eight more and purchase rights on twenty more, was announced on April 24, 2007. The aircraft will replace Virgin’s older A340-300s. Virgin has listed Seattle, Vancouver, Bangkok, and Melbourne as possible new destinations for the aircraft, while also stating that the 787 range would make non-stop operations from London to Perth, Australia and Honolulu, Hawaii possible. Virgin is also in negotiations with both Boeing and Airbus over an order for ten wide-bodied jets for the airline's Gatwick-based fleet. This could be either a new order for the Boeing 747-8 or an order for additional Airbus A380-800s. Deliveries of the new fleet are expected to begin in 2012, in time for the 2012 London Olympics.

Virgin’s aircraft are painted in a red and silver livery that was introduced in October 2006 with the delivery of G-VRED, and will eventually adorn the entire fleet. Near the nose of each aircraft is a pinup girl motif designed by British artist Ken White, called a “Scarlet Lady”. White modeled the motif on the iconic World War II era pin-up girls of Alberto Vargas—hence the naming of one of the fleet as Varga Girl. The motif was updated with the addition of the 1999 Silver livery. Each one carries a Union Flag and has a unique name. The names are usually feminine, such as Ladybird, Island Lady and Ruby Tuesday, but some names are linked to their registrations (e.g. G-VFIZ—Bubbles). There are also a couple of commemorative names (e.g. G-VEIL—Queen of the Skies—which was named by Queen Elizabeth II on 7 April 2004 in celebration of the centenary of the Entente Cordiale). An exception is The Spirit of Sir Freddie. An early Boeing 747, it was named in honour of Freddie Laker of the defunct Laker Airways, who helped get Virgin Atlantic running following the demise of his own airline. G-VFAB—Lady Penelope—gained a special edition livery to celebrate Virgin Atlantic’s 21st birthday. The Scarlet Lady was enlarged and moved to the rear of the aircraft, a Boeing 747-400, and the aircraft was temporarily renamed Birthday Girl.

On September 27, 2006, Richard Branson, on behalf of Virgin Atlantic Airways, announced plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting down on aircraft weight and fuel consumption. There was also an experiment to have aircraft towed to the runway to save fuel, but this has not resulted in a change of operational procedures.

Two Virgin Atlantic aircraft are featured briefly in the James Bond film, Casino Royale. One Airbus A340-600 (G-VWIN) and one Boeing 747-400-along with Richard Branson and Virgin Atlantic crew—are part of a scene at Miami International Airport (although the sequence was filmed at Ruzyně International Airport in Prague).

In November 2007, the Spice Girls announced that Virgin Atlantic would be the airline partner for The Return of the Spice Girls world tour. A promotional plane-naming competition was held to name the Boeing 747-400 aircraft that the Spice Girls would travel on. In December 2007, G-VFAB was renamed Spice One.

Current

Virgin Atlantic’s fleet consists of the following aircraft as of August 2007:
Aircraft Total Passengers
(Upper/Premium Economy/Economy)
Notes
Airbus A340-300 6 240 (34/35/171) Exit from service: 2011
Replacement Aircraft: Boeing 787-9
Airbus A340-600 19
308 (45/38/225)
Airbus A380-800 (6 orders)
(6 options)
Entry into service: 2013
Boeing 747-400 13 452 (14/58/380)
451 (14/58/379)
344 (54/62/228)
Boeing 787-9 (15 orders)
(8 options)
Entry into service: 2011
Replacing:Airbus A340-300
Trent 1000 Engines

Retired

In the past, Virgin Atlantic has operated a variety of aircraft. Its retired fleet consists of:
Aircraft Total Notes
Airbus A320 4 Operated by Virgin Sun.
Sold to First Choice Airways.
Airbus A321 2 Operated by Virgin Sun.
Sold to First Choice Airways.
Boeing 747-100 1 G-VMIA named 'Spirit of Sir Freddie' after airline legend Sir Freddie Laker.
Boeing 747-200 11 G-VIRG was Virgin's first aircraft.
Replaced by A340-600.
Vickers Viscount 4 Operated for Virgin by British United Air Ferries.

Cabin

All Virgin Atlantic aircraft are in a three-class configuration with Economy, Premium Economy, and Upper Class cabins.

Economy

Economy is the standard coach class of Virgin Atlantic and has fairly standard amenities for a Legacy carrier, such as free meals and drinks and a free amenity kit. Seats have a maximum seat pitch of 81 cm (depending on the aircraft type). In addition, updated economy seats have adjustable lumbar support, and are being installed across Virgin Atlantic’s fleet.

Premium Economy

Premium Economy has a separate check-in area, priority boarding ahead of Economy passengers, a wider seat with more legroom than Economy, and additional cabin services such as a preflight drink and dedicated cabin crew. As with Economy, in November 2006, Virgin launched an updated product with a wider seat that also supplies laptop power. It is being installed across the fleet starting with Heathrow-based A340 aircraft. As of April 2008 all A340s have the new product. The 747s based at Heathrow completed their refit by December 2007 and have an updated configuration of 62 seats all located downstairs. The upper deck on Gatwick-based 747s is entirely Premium Economy, with a further two Premium Economy rows downstairs, between Upper Class and Economy.

Upper Class

Upper Class is the equivalent of business class on all Virgin Atlantic Airways’ flights. Virgin does not offer a traditional First Class cabin service. The Upper Class seat is claimed by the airline to be the biggest fully flat bed of any airline’s business class service (it is approximately 202 cm long and 84 cm wide), however Air Canada and Singapore Airlines have made similar claims. The seat offers in-seat laptop power and power leads for iPods and Upper Class passengers have access to a chauffeur, drive thru check-in and private security channel (at some airports), the clubhouse (lounge), a larger menu than that of Premium Economy and Economy passengers and an in-flight bar.

In-flight entertainment

All Virgin Atlantic aircraft offer personal seat-back televisions that provide entertainment channels. Certain aircraft (some 747-400s, one A340-300–G-VSUN–, and all A340-600s) have an Audio/Video on Demand (AVOD) system called V:Port. Older "Odyssey" and "Nova" IFE systems can be found on aircraft in the fleet. These have smaller screens and display audio and video on a loop rather than broadcasting on demand.

Incidents and accidents

  • On 5 November, 1997, after numerous attempts to shake free the jammed main landing gear of an Airbus A340-300 G-VSKY failed, the aircraft made an emergency landing at London Heathrow Airport. The aircraft and the runway were damaged as the landing gear collapsed. The aircraft was evacuated safely causing only minor injuries.
  • On 8 February, 2005, onboard an Airbus A340-600 aircraft (G-VATL) en route from Hong Kong to London, the fuel control computer system caused a loss of automatic fuel transfer between tanks. The left outboard engine lost power, and shortly after the right outboard engine also began to falter until the crew began crossfeeding fuel manually. The crew diverted to Amsterdam, where a safe landing was made. The interim accident report made 4 safety recommendations addressed to the primary certification bodies for large transport category aircraft (EASA and the FAA), advising on the need for a low fuel warning system for large aircraft.

Slogans

Over the years, Virgin has used many slogans, including:

  • "Mine's Bigger Than Yours"

Written on the back of the Airbus A340-600s because they are the longest passenger aircraft in the world

  • "4 Engines 4 Longhaul"

Originally an Airbus slogan when newer versions of the A340 were built until Virgin inherited the slogan. The slogan was written on the engines of the planes, because all Virgin's planes at the time had four engines as opposed to BA's long haul twin-jet Boeing 777s and Boeing 767s. The slogan was removed in 2006 because it "had run its course and it was time to move on"—Virgin would later order Boeing 787 twin-jet aircraft in 2007.

  • "Avoid The Q"

Used to advertise Virgin's London to Hong Kong to Sydney service. The Q is a double entendre, referring to both queues (with Virgin's online check-in feature) and Qantas, which also operates the same route.

  • "Keep Discovering - Until You Find The Best"

Used to promote the London to Dubai service, playing with rival airline Emirates' slogan 'Keep Discovering'

  • "BA can't keep it [Concorde] up!"

Written on the back of G-VFOX during June and July 2003 after British Airways announced it would retire Concorde the following October.

  • "No Way BA/AA"

Used in the late 1990s on several 747-400s to express Branson's displeasure with the proposed British Airways/American Airlines partnership. BA/AA combined held 100% market share on several US-UK routes (e.g. Dallas-Fort Worth to London), and a market share of more than 50% in several more (e.g. Chicago to London, JFK to London). The slogan was brought back starting in September 2008 after merger talks between British Airways, Iberia Airlines and American Airlines began.

Others Include: "More experience than the name suggests," "Virgin, seeks travel companion(s)," "Love at first flight," "You never forget your first time," "Extra inches where it counts," "Fly a younger fleet," "One call does it all," "Hello gorgeous", "We're better by four" and, in a campaign featuring Austin Powers, "There's only one Virgin on this T-shirt (or bus, etc.) baby," and "Twice a day to London" in which Austin Powers is seen riding on the fuselage of a Virgin Atlantic 747. During that time G-VTOP was temporarily named "Austin Powered".

Further reading

  • Gregory, Martyn. Dirty Tricks: British Airways' Secret War Against Virgin Atlantic. New York: Virgin, 2000. ISBN 0-7535-0458-8
  • Bower, Tom. Branson. UK: Fourth Estate, 2001 ISBN 1-84115-400-8
  • Branson, Richard (2006 [2nd reprint]). Losing my Virginity - The Autobiography. Virgin Books Ltd.. ISBN 0-7535-1020-0.

See also

References

External links

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