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Will Virgin Atlantic announce a new aircraft order at Farnborough?

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I spent last weekend in Las Vegas with Shai Weiss, CEO of Virgin Atlantic, and Sir Richard Branson (and some other people, not just the three of us!) to celebrate the airline’s upcoming 40th birthday on 22nd June.

As part of the celebrations I sat down with Shai to discuss what Virgin Atlantic is up to and where he sees the airline heading.

We covered a vast range of topics including their plans for profitability, a new terminal at Heathrow and Flying Club changes – look out for these stories later in the week – but in this article I want to look at what’s happening with Virgin Atlantic’s fleet.

Virgin Atlantic to announce a new aircraft order?

Over the past decade, but particularly since 2019, Virgin Atlantic has been on a huge fleet renewal program to replace older, less efficient aircraft with newer ones.

Since 2019 Virgin Atlantic has taken delivery of 12 A350s and 4 A330neos, whilst the pandemic accelerated the retirement of the gas-guzzling Boeing 747s (albeit not without a suitable send-off).

By the end of this year Virgin Atlantic will operate 45 aircraft, a number that will remain static “as we replace A330s with A330neos” according to Shai.

When the last neo of the current order arrives in 2028, Virgin Atlantic will have a fleet comprised entirely of new generation planes – or, to use one of Shai’s favourite phrases, “the youngest fleet in the sky.”

This will include 17 Boeing 787 Dreamliners, which at that point will be between 10 and 14 years old.

What will happen with the Dreamliner fleet?

10-14 years old is an interesting age for leased aircraft. Most initial leases are around 12 years long: after that, the airline and lessor need to renegotiate a renewal or part ways.

For Virgin Atlantic, that means an important juncture is quickly approaching:

“We’re considering what to do with our Dreamliners; we have 17 of them. We need to make a decision on whether to maintain or replace them. But they’re very good planes, other than the issues with the Rolls-Royce Trent 1000 engines.”

What is interesting is that, over the past 40 years, Virgin Atlantic has gone from an all-Boeing fleet (with the first Boeing 747-100 in 1984) to an Airbus-heavy fleet of (eventually) 12 A350s and 14 A330neos.

With the 787s coming up on their leases, Virgin Atlantic has an opportunity to reconsider its long-term structure. Based on my conversation, it seems like a new aircraft order may be on the cards.

During our interview, Shai told me he was attending the Farnborough International Air Show this year. It is an opportunity for airlines to meet manufacturers and suppliers, but it is also where major aircraft orders are often announced.

Whilst some airline CEOs attend every year, others are more elusive; to my knowledge, Shai Weiss has never made a public appearance there, suggesting that he has something to announce.

I asked him if he is about to announce an aircraft order.

He takes a long, teasing pause. “Possibly.”

Virgin Atlantic A330neo

Virgin Atlantic could announce an order for more A330neos

Assuming I am right, and his appearance at Farnborough is no coincidence, then my money would be on a follow-on order for more A330neos. It is the only aircraft that makes sense as a Dreamliner replacement: the A350 and Boeing 777X are too large.

It would help that Virgin Atlantic still has options for eight further A330neos from its original order in 2019 – not enough to replace the entire Dreamliner fleet of 17 but enough to get them going.

I’ve also been told that Airbus has chartered one of Virgin’s A330neos for display at the show. It would make sense that Airbus would want to showcase a customer that already operates the aircraft and is keen for more.

The A330neo is the same size as the Dreamliner

So why is the A330neo a good Dreamliner replacement?

For a start, the capacity of Virgin Atlantic’s A330neos and 787s are almost identical, with a difference of just four seats overall:

Virgin configurationA330-900neoBoeing 787-9
Total seats262258
Upper Class3231
Premium4635
Economy184192

Interestingly, the A330neos have a slightly more premium configuration with an additional seat in Upper Class and 11 more seats in the ever-popular Premium cabin, at the expense of eight economy seats.

Additional neos would therefore be an almost like-for-like replacement for the Dreamliners, leaving overall capacity relatively unchanged.

Improved fleet commonality

For a small airline such as Virgin Atlantic – and it is comparatively small, with just 45 aircraft – operating three different types adds unnecessary additional complexity in terms of maintenance and pilot and crew training.

It is very easy for pilots and crew to operate on both A350s and A330s due to the commonality of the aircraft. For example, EASA in Europe issues what is called a ‘common type rating’ which requires only minimal additional training. According to Airbus:

A330 pilots are expected to qualify on the A350 in eight working days without mandated Full Flight Simulator time.” 

If Virgin Atlantic moved to an entirely Airbus operation with the A350 and A330neo it would enjoy additional flexibility in how and when it deploys staff, and reduce operational duplication.

Virgin Atlantic new fleet order?

The A330neo is likely to be cheaper

Aircraft list prices are hard to come by and are pretty meaningless anyway, as airlines typically negotiate steep discounts. However, it is likely that the A330neo is cheaper than a Boeing 787 due to a cheaper, mostly aluminium manufacturing process vs the 787’s more advanced carbon fibre construction.

The 787 is also heavily outselling the A330neo, putting pressure on Airbus to offer better pricing to stimulate demand and fill production slots.

In most cases, it would make sense to extend the lease of the Dreamliners. After all, it’s easier to keep existing aircraft than integrate new ones, especially as they already have cabins fitted out.

In this case, however, the lessors may be in a stronger position due to the high demand for the Dreamliner. There is also no financial benefit to keeping the Dreamliners as the interiors need replacing anyway: the 22-year old Upper Class seat is long overdue for an update. Shai told me that “if we were to retrofit the 787, it would probably be in the configuration of the A330-900neo.”

Since both the existing Dreamliner fleet and any incoming new aircraft need a new cabin, there is no benefit to sticking with the Dreamliner.

Conclusion

Whilst far from confirmed, it is clear that something must happen with Virgin Atlantic’s fleet soon. Shai’s attendance at Farnbough, his cagey answers and the suggestion that an announcement on the fleet “may come even earlier than late summer” suggest we will soon find out.


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Comments (73)

This article is closed to new comments. Feel free to ask your question in the HfP forums.

  • Harold says:

    Is pilot training not a factor here? No one seems to be mentioning it, but taking nearly 20 B787s worth of pilots and then suddenly switching them all to Airbus sounds complicated and expensive. Pilots are hard to come by these days so I wonder whether VS would really just go ahead and switch to an all Airbus fleet, with potential issues if pilots don’t fancy that. I’m not familiar with all the technical details though, but maybe someone more informed than me would be able to comment on this…

    • john says:

      Maybe they were planning that they would be gently phased out. Presumably some retrained from the 747 to 787, so they may be an older generation.

      They may well be able to poach them from other airlines though. If you were a BA shorthaul pilot and could upgauge to a widebody (with basic type rating conversion), and it fit your lifestyle, it would be an interesting prospect if Virgin suddenly needed 20-planes worth of new pilots..

      • Carlos says:

        Sounds like strange times at Virgin right now. A BA pilot mate on the A350 tells me they’re poaching loads of their pilots at the moment as the contracts post covid are rubbish. Add that to the above comment about pilots being hard to come by and I wonder how VS will decide to handle this.

        • TooPoorToBeHere says:

          VS industrial relations with pilots are in quite a poor place at the moment.

          The Mike Lawson case shines a quite uncomfortable light on their (hopefully former) practices and culture.

    • the_real_a says:

      Pilots seem quite adept at swapping types. It seems to be no big deal, although some movement would be expected in such a big shift. I know some contract pilots who are type rated for both Boeing and Airbus and fly them interchangeably. Boeing on a Monday, and Airbus on a Thursday.

  • Bernard says:

    They’ll keep the 787s. Go talk to an aircraft leasing company. There’s a shortage of new fleet. The 777X is an unknown (both delivery dates and how safe/not safe it will be after the max and build quality problems across Boeing).
    Unless Virgin plans to shrink by a third the 787s are sticky around – and Virgin will be paying more for the leases. The only alternative will be a trade in with their leasing providers for something newer and more expensive- eventually (2030 onwards). Not sure Virgin is profitable enough to go down this road…

  • Opus says:

    The A330NEO is for airlines that cannot afford the 787 in 2024 prices, OR don’t have the flexibility to wait till 2030 for 20 planes. And that is Virgin Atlantic.

    The 787 has the largest backlog of any widebody aircraft and it’s about be come much larger at the Farnborough Airshow with Turkish airlines expected to commit to another 75 Dreamliners and Korean another 30 Dreamliners.

    Taking the backlog to almost 1000 aircraft (with 1000 having already been delivered) and that’s incredible for a program that launched 20 years ago.

    IMO, virgin should let go of those 787s and simplify their fleet. The 330neo will do what it can do, the 350 will cover the rest.

    • Chabuddy Geezy says:

      Lots of good points here. Would Virgin want to use its flagship A350 on potentially lower yield routes like Shanghai though?

    • Michael Jennings says:

      The A330 is a bit old and its operating costs are probably a bit higher than the 787, but it’s always been a good plane. The 330neo is a decent upgrade and the plane is reliable and relatively cheap. Virgin Atlantic is too small an airline to be operating three types of widebody. Their buying a few A330neos seems fairly sensible to me.

  • Kai Humphreys says:

    I hope Virgin Atlantic get the 777X to compete with the A350

  • Mark Hopwood says:

    There’s some short term vs longer term Qs here for Virgin. A short term view is hang on the 787s and avoid pilot training while longer term an all Airbus fleet brings simplicity.

    A gradual switch to A300/350s would allow pilots to leave the 787 fleet largely by natural attrition.

    While the A350-1000 is too big compared to a B787-9, an A350-900 isn’t that much bigger. I’d say Virgin will exercise their A330-900 options then top up with A350-900. They lose a small chunk of seats with A330 and gain a bit with A350-900.

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