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Why is Virgin Atlantic flying twice daily to Brussels with an A321?!

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Here’s an interesting off-topic story for a Saturday.

Covid led to many businesses having to pivot their operations, none more so than airlines.

Virgin Atlantic was, for many months, more of a cargo airline than a passenger airline. Back in 2020, the airline began running two flights per week to and from Brussels using long haul aircraft, feeding cargo into its transatlantic and Asian network.

Spring forward to 2022 and the airline has operated over 700 flights from Brussels, transporting over 16 million kg of cargo. The recent issues with P&O Ferries have meant that demand continues to be strong.

Titan A321F for Virgin Atlantic

The routes is going so well that, as of May 2022, Virgin Atlantic Cargo is running two flights per DAY to Brussels. VS571 leaves Heathrow at 08.20 whilst VS573 leaves Heathrow at 17.30. Brussels is the only cargo-only route being operated by Virgin Atlantic.

With Virgin Atlantic’s passenger operations now picking up again, the airline no longer has enough spare long haul aircraft to operate a Brussels service.

Whilst it is still not operating as many passenger flights as it did pre-covid, the requirement to extend flight times on certain eastbound routes to avoid Russian airspace has meant more aircraft being needed to service the existing routes.

The solution was leasing an Airbus A321 from Titan Airways. To quote from the Titan website:

“In 2020 Titan Airways became the first carrier in the northern hemisphere – and one of the first in the world – to operate the Airbus A321P2F. The aircraft is the first of its size to have containerised loading in both of its two decks. With capacity for up to 14 containers in the main deck and 10 containers in the lower deck, the aircraft can carry up to 207m3 / 27,000kg of cargo.”

These aircraft were reportedly originally used by Thomas Cook for passenger service before the airline collapsed, and were then converted to freight operation.

There is, of course, another good reason for Virgin Atlantic to stick with Brussels. The flights allow it to utilise two pairs of its daily take off and landing slots at Heathrow, which will be forfeited if not used for 70% of the time during the Summer flying season.

With the slot rules expected to return to 80% usage from November, Brussels may continue to play a part in the Virgin Atlantic schedule if the airline cannot resume its full roster of passenger flights to Asia.

Comments (13)

  • SamG says:

    Not Virgin Atlantic’s first Europe flights though, they’ve dabbled a couple of times. They operated some prop feeders from Maastricht in the 80s to Gatwick to help fill the Newark flights. Short lived as they wanted to focus on the long haul flying & worried about the brand experience. It was inadvertently one of the UKs first “low cost” flying options as they sold off the surplus seats cheaply

    In hindsight the management missed a trick and should have realised that low fare flying out of London and the UK to Europe would eventually be huge and Virgin would have been the perfect brand for it in my opinion

    They also operated an A321 on Athens back before 9/11 & probably some others I can’t remember. There was a seperate low cost airline in Europe- Virgin Express out of Brussels (and Ireland IIRC) which merged into the remains of Sabena to become what is today SN Brussels (bought later by Lufthansa) & the Virgin Red domestics operated by Aer Lingus.

    • Rob says:

      I did the Athens flight as my first VS redemption after a work trip to Jo’burg in the late 1990s!

      • SamG says:

        Probably a good redemption, Athens etc could be particularly expensive back then. I remember we paid ~£400 ea to go to Cyprus late 90 complete with smoking section!

      • VSCXfan says:

        SEN-OST on a Viscount was the last time I flew Virgin to Belgium.

    • VSCXfan says:

      I think the LGW-ATH flights were operated “on behalf of SE Europe Airway”s and the LCY-DUB flights on behalf of Virgin Atlantic

    • Save East Coast Rewards says:

      That’s almost correct. SN Brussels Airlines was what rose out of the ashes of Sabena (a bit like ITA with Alitalia) when it merged with Virgin Express it just became Brussels Airlines.

    • Will in SJC says:

      Actually they started ATH with A320s. They switched to brand new 321s Around 2000 and then 9/11 happened. The arrangements originally involved an airline called Southeastern European Airlines (SEEA) who started with 737s in the VS livery. The 320s operated with the SEEA logo by the door. At some point, maybe when the 321s arrived, they stopped the SEEA arrangement. Fair few photos online of Virgin 320s in ATH and some of the Greek airlines.

  • JohnTh says:

    Love the idea of Tomas Cook putting passengers in containers!

  • Bimbo says:

    “Back in 2020, the airline began running two long haul flights per week to and from Brussels”… Since when a flight from Heathrow to Brussels is long haul? Did you mean to say “long haul aircrafts”?

  • ADS says:

    An interesting use of a 22 year old aircraft

    I wonder how many more old A321s will be converted for cargo … maybe to replace some of the 40 year old cargo A310s that presumably must be reaching the end of their useful economic life!

    • Rob says:

      Some of the Virgin Atlantic 747s went off for cargo conversion to fly around the US.

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