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Virgin Little Red closure – cheap redemptions, big flight bonuses, who gets the slots?

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The announcement of the closure of the Virgin Little Red domestic routes to Manchester, Aberdeen and Edinburgh was badly timed for Head for Points – I was sitting in a departure lounge at Heathrow waiting to take a six hour flight!  The extra 24 hours has allowed me time to pull together all of the relevant information.

The Little Red services launched in March 2013, using airport slots freed up by British Airways under pressure from the European Commission following its takeover of bmi.  I have flown Little Red twice and I liked it – although that was partly because the planes were almost empty, which was of course the problem!  The Aer Lingus crews who staffed them were cheerful and Virgin had taken some hints from Virgin America in terms of cabin lighting.

Fares were laughably cheap even at short notice.  Given that you also earned Virgin miles and tier points at a decent rate, it was a bargain.

The failure of these services surprise me.  Despite the wind of the Virgin PR machine behind them, plus attractive fares, they still could not fill the planes.  Perhaps too many people were going directly to ba.com or the low cost carrier websites to book their tickets, where the Virgin option would not appear?

The lack of a lounge in Terminal 1 was an issue (Virgin ended up dumping Servisair and giving out coffee vouchers instead).  The move to Terminal 2 has given them the Aer Lingus lounge which is pleasant enough and the Manchester and Edinburgh options are arguably better than the BA lounges.  The failure to attract connecting passengers to Virgin long haul flights is not a surprise given the need to change terminals – passengers in Manchester and Edinburgh could also choose long-haul flights via the Middle East or other hubs.

All in all, though, I struggle to think of what else Virgin could have done to make it work.  Good pricing, good crew, attractive interiors, status matches, miles and tier points …. what else could you do?

Little Red

When are the routes closing?

The last Manchester flight will be on March 28th.  The Aberdeen and Edinburgh routes will close on 26th September.

You can read the full press release here.

What bonuses are available for flying Little Red?

A base level member will now receive 2,000 Flying Club miles per return flight.

A Silver member will receive 3,000 and a Gold member will receive 4,000.  This is very generous given the low cost of the flights.

What redemption deals are available?

Good ones, if you have status.

A standard Little Red return flight was 7,500 Flying Club miles plus £34 tax.

Effective immediately, a Virgin Silver member can book a return flight for just 5,000 miles plus tax.  A Gold member can book for a crazy 2,500 miles plus tax!

These discounted deals must be booked by telephone.

Will they still be matching BA Gold and BA Silver cards onboard?

I wrote recently about how Little Red was offering on-board status matches to passengers who had British Airways status.  We need to wait and see if this will continue.  With the Scottish flights still having a year to run, Virgin may consider it worthwhile to continue with this.

What happens to the landing slots?

The Heathrow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh take-off and landing slots used for the Little Red flights all belonged to bmi.  British Airways was forced to divest them as part of the takeover.  Two of the Manchester slots were already owned by Virgin and will be retained – in the short term I imagine Virgin will lease them out.  The other Manchester slots were also from bmi.

This is what the European Commission said:

As a general rule, the slots obtained by a prospective entrant must be operated on the city pair(s) for which they have been requested from IAG and cannot be used on another city pair unless the prospective entrant has operated them during at least six full consecutive IATA seasons (“the Utilisation Period”). The prospective entrant would be deemed to have grandfathering rights for the slots once appropriate use of the slots has been made on the city pairs at issue, for the Utilisation Period. Once the Utilisation Period has elapsed, the prospective entrant would be entitled to use the slots obtained on the basis of the Commitments exclusively to operate services on any route connecting London with any other part of Europe (including Aberdeen and Edinburgh), or on London-Moscow, London-Cairo and London-Riyadh.

If Virgin had run the services for three years, it would have been able to close down the routes and retain the slots.  However, those slots could only be used for flights to Europe, Moscow, Cairo or Riyadh.  It is interesting that Virgin did not see this as attractive enough to keep the services going for another nine months or so.

My understanding is the slots will now revert to British Airways.  This is not a bad little earner for them – you are looking at around $150m-200m of slots based on recent prices.  However, if another airline wishes to launch a route between Manchester, Edinburgh and/or Aberdeen and London, it can apply for them.  I am not sure what the process will be and how long the offer remains open.

What happens to the planes and crew?

The planes belonged to, or were leased by, Aer Lingus.  The crew was also employed by Aer Lingus.  If they were leased specifically for these services then they will presumably return to the owner.  The future for the crew looks bleak unfortunately.

(Want to earn more Virgin Flying Club miles?  Click here to see recent articles on Virgin Atlantic, Little Red and Flying Club, and click here for the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

Comments (56)

  • squills says:

    It’s not a case of VS going down the pan, more like Branson selling out/ cutting exposure.

    He’s been reducing his personal interest for years, now.

    RB born 18 July 1950. What else would you expect?

  • squills says:

    He wanted to nip at BA’s heels one last time, it started to prove more expensive than he expected, game over.

    Plus the slots = the whole thing will make money after all.

    • Rob says:

      He doesn’t get the slots. Either someone else takes over the services or BA gets them back, a tidy $200m windfall.

      • Mark says:

        Hard to see any other airline wanting to have a good at it.

        Lufthansa/German Wings maybe as a feeder for Star LH services in T2 (with the ability use the slots to German Cities in 3 years if it doesn’t work), but I really can’t see it given that they could have held onto slots when they sold BMI if they’d wanted to.

        WW must be pleased.

  • Ian says:

    Yes, Little Red’s fares were competitive but it was very interesting to compare them with BA’s. I looked up what a day trip from LHR to Aberdeen and back would cost on a Saturday in a couple of weeks time. LR £95, BA £88. It’s a no-brainer – and the reason LR won’t be around in a year’s time.

  • Pid says:

    I took a LR flight end of Jul and completed the status match form for my BA gold. Did not hear anything and had been meaning to chase but not had time. Received the email today confirming the match had been completed so there is still hope for there’s to get a match. Poor service it taking 10 weeks to process though.

  • James205 says:

    I have a Virgin Gold Card and have used the Little Red service since it started. Always good. It’s biggest problem was lack of advertising: even regular travellers didn’t realise Little Red operated and Virgin did not seem to want to spend on advertising.
    As for long haul, In my opinion Virgin is in decline. Some of the best flight slots ( eg LA route) have gone to Delta. Also, as Delta does not have Premium Economy, PE seats now very difficult to get. Also, Reward seats now difficult. And, as for changes on the Virgin website (especially re reward seats): Improvements? I think not. More difficult to identify flights in different classes.
    All I need is BA to offer lateral transfer at same status and I’m off.

    • RIccati says:

      If squeezing VA out of LAX by Delta is intentional, that would be a good matter for UK Competition and Markets Authority to consider. They should investigate if Virgin was compensated for those Heathrow slots at market prices. If not, then it is Delta pulling the strings and being in charge.

  • Billy says:

    It seems VS wasn’t getting the connecting traffic which is a shame.

    Between bmi’s demise and launch of Little Red, BA fares did go up.

    Only the pilots were from Aer Lingus, cabin crew were from an agency. (Sourced by EI) They have been offered roles at Virgin, although I’m told the LR operation suited many in a way long haul will not.

  • Alan says:

    Very impressed – had booked a domestic redemption flight a few weeks ago and VS have just deposited 2,500 in my account as a “Gold Little Red Reward Rebate” so my flight is costing the princely sum of 1,250 pts and £17.25!

  • Trevor says:

    Ok, so how the heck can I get quick n easy Virgin status to take advantage of the reduced miles fares? And no, I don’t have BA status.