Virgin Atlantic set to head east out of Manchester to support its international partners

Virgin Atlantic Airways is placing an increasing focus on its activities out of Manchester Airport in northwest England and this could soon see it debut its first flights to the East, complementing its existing trans-Atlantic services. There are suggestions that an Americas-centric network at Manchester that has been boosted by flights to Atlanta in 2015 and Boston, New York and San Francisco last year could be joined by a route into India as early as this autumn.

It is understood that Virgin Atlantic is working on an arrangement with its shareholder Delta Air Lines and Indian carrier Jet Airways to support the strong demand for flights between India and both the UK and the US. Delta already has a partnership with Jet Airways to offer connections between the US and India via Amsterdam Schiphol, but a complementary arrangement is being discussed to potentially also route passengers via Manchester using both Jet Airways and Virgin Atlantic equipment.

The Blue Swan Daily reported last week that Jet Airways is looking to expand its presence in the UK market outside of its London operation and it is understood that it has already selected Manchester as its preferred destination. Under the arrangement being discussed with Virgin Atlantic, both airlines will launch a three times weekly schedule linking the UK city with Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi, perhaps as early as late October this year. Virgin Atlantic already serves Delhi from London Heathrow and had previously also flown to Mumbai.

A Virgin Atlantic branded (and operated) service between Atlanta, Boston, New York, San Francisco and Delhi via Manchester would provide another channel to help Delta pull back some passengers currently flying between the US and India via the Gulf nations – and we all know the US major’s views on airlines from those countries! The flights of Emirates Airline, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways into the US are heavily underpinned by traffic connecting from India via Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha, respectively.

CHART – Delta Air Lines currently mainly serves the India market in partnership with Jet Airways via their respective flights into Amsterdam SchipholSource: Delta Air Lines

The Virgin Atlantic flights would likely be flown using Airbus A330-200 equipment, a new type that is debuting in the airline’s fleet this year after it moved quickly to source four former airberlin aircraft following the German carrier’s collapse last year. The airline already operates the larger -300 variant of the aircraft, but acquired these smaller versions to overcome engine related issues with its Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet and to especially support its regional flying strategy.

The aircraft are being deployed out of Manchester and offer a different configuration (still based on airberlin’s arrangement) to the airline’s standard offering with no Premium Economy cabin and an alternate business class arrangement that Virgin has distinguished in its own style.

The 287-seater aircraft feature 19 seats that recline into fully flat beds in business class, 46 extra leg room economy seats, and 222 economy seats, albeit a Premium Economy cabin will be introduced in the latter stages of this year, the airline has confirmed. The business class cabin includes three pairs of ‘Love Suites’ located in the centre of the cabin and “ideal for couples or groups travelling and looking to dine and watch movies together” and a mix of Solo Freedom Suite’ and ‘Solo Corner Suite’ options.

CHART – Virgin Atlantic’s Airbus A330-200 fleet still maintains its basic airberlin configuration and means a different business class arrangement to those seen across its other aircraft typesSource: Virgin Atlantic

Virgin Atlantic has already more than doubled its inventory at Manchester, growing by 134% since the start of the decade. The Blue Swan Daily analysis of capacity data from OAG shows its long haul seat offering has been increasing at double-digit year over year rates since 2014 with +29.2% growth in 2015, +10.3% in 2016 and +16.0% last year, and it is forecast to grow a further +10.8% based on published schedules for the current calendar year.

The airline’s Manchester offering, like much of its network outside of its London Heathrow main operation, has for a long time been predominantly targeted towards the leisure market, but through its trans-Atlantic joint venture with equity partner, Delta Air Lines, it is beginning to see additional network options following two decades of flights from the city.

Last year’s new links to Boston and San Francisco will see marginal capacity declines in 2018, but this summer Virgin Atlantic will offer its biggest ever seasonal schedule out of Manchester as it introduces its Boeing 747-400 on its routes to Atlanta and New York. In total, the airline will offer more than 350,000 direct seats between Manchester and the US alone with a wider network that covers seven destinations across the US and the Caribbean.

CHART – Virgin Atlantic has significantly grown its long-haul offering out of Manchester, but to date this has exclusively been focused on markets to the westSource: The Blue Swan Daily and OAG