Over the years British Airways & Virgin Atlantic have had numerous colourful disagreements. Now, with the launch of Virgin’s domestic service, Little Red, the battle will be played out over the skies of the UK for the first time.
Following its takeover of bmi in 2012, British Airways was forced to give up a number of slots on routes between Heathrow and Manchester, Edinburgh & Aberdeen. It would have had to do the same on flights between Heathrow & Glasgow except for the fact that bmi had already stopped operating the route before the takeover. Having given up the slots, it came down to a straight flight between Virgin Atlantic & Air Lingus as to who would take them over and, as the former could boast a complementary long-haul route at Heathrow, it came as no surprise to industry watchers when the slots were awarded to Virgin.
Starting with services to Manchester, followed by the launch of flights to Scotland this April, Little Red now offers six daily flights between Heathrow & Edinburgh, three daily flights between Heathrow & Aberdeen and four daily flights between Heathrow & Manchester. One of the amusing ironies of this story is that because Virgin Atlantic doesn’t have any experience of flying short-haul, Little Red flights will be operated by aircraft and crew from, yes, you guessed it, Air Lingus.
All flights will be operated by A320 aircraft in the Virgin Atlantic livery, as per the picture above. The airline will offer a single cabin service with all-leather seats and hot-breakfast rolls on flights before 9am.
So, will Virgin be able to compete with British Airways and make a profit? Well, it’s always been hugely difficult for anyone to make a profit on UK domestic flights but especially full service airlines. In terms of cost, Little Red is unlikely to be able to compete with Easyjet & Ryanair (although neither fly to Heathrow) while British Airways has more slots and bigger aircraft which it could use (surely not!) to drive prices down. As a stand-alone service it seems highly unlikely that Little Red will ever make money so its value to the airline can only be considered as a feeder service. Clearly there are passengers near all three airports who will welcome the ability to fly Virgin all the way to the US, Africa & Asia but are there enough of them? Having recently seen US carrier Delta take a 49% stake in the airline, and with talk of Virgin Atlantic joining the Sky Team alliance, Richard Branson must feel confident that Little Red won’t go the way of bmi.