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Will Virgin Atlantic return to Gatwick? And what about Manchester growth?

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This is the final article this week based on my interview with Virgin Atlantic CEO Shai Weiss at the 40th birthday event for the airline in Las Vegas.

Late last week, The Times (paywall) quoted Sir Richard Branson as saying that the airline was “planning” to return to Gatwick airport.

Until it ended operations in 2020, Gatwick was arguably Virgin Atlantic’s “home” airport. It was from London Gatwick that Branson launched his inaugural flight to New York on the 22nd June 1984 – because the Government refused to give him Heathrow slots – and the Virgin Atlantic offices remain in Crawley.

Will Virgin Atlantic return to Gatwick Airport?

When covid hit, the airline made the decision to consolidate operations at Heathrow. Flights from Heathrow were always more profitable thanks to a higher share of corporate travel whilst Gatwick was seen as a lower margin leisure operation.

Under Shai’s leadership, and with the help of CCO Juha Järvinen, increasing network connectivity (which includes codeshares on other carriers and SkyTeam membership) finally appears to be paying off.

Splitting operations across two London airports made little sense in this context: consolidating flights at Heathrow was arguably inevitable to increase the number of connections Virgin Atlantic can offer.

Just this week Virgin announced it was launching flights to Toronto based on the strength of the India – London – Canada passenger flows.

Will Virgin Atlantic return to Gatwick Airport?

But Gatwick clearly still means a lot to Branson, who reiterated during the 40th birthday celebrations that he would like to see Virgin Atlantic back at the airport. When I spoke to Shai, he told me that there are currently no plans to return to Gatwick but that:

“We’re maxed out at Heathrow, we have a beautiful base in Manchester …. in considering the options for Virgin Atlantic for future growth, profitably, never say never.”

Consolidating at Heathrow isn’t as easy as it might sound, and puts some serious brakes on potential growth for Virgin Atlantic. With the airport still to announce whether it will continue to pursue a third runway under new CEO Thomas Woldbye, any airport expansion is at least a decade away.

The only way for Virgin Atlantic to grow would be to acquire slots on an adhoc basis (such as those it gained from Russia’s Aeroflot) or to increase flights from other airports. The latter would likely be less profitable and offers none of the connectivity options that Heathrow does. Neither option is ideal.

The key reason why Virgin Atlantic will launch flights to Seoul if the Korean / Asiana merger goes through is because Korean would provide the necessary slots at Heathrow (and in Seoul) for free as part of its concessions package.

Will Virgin Atlantic return to Gatwick Airport?

What about Manchester Airport?

Speaking of the regions, let’s take a look at Virgin Atlantic’s operations at Manchester Airport. On Manchester, Shai said “Our home in the North remains a valuable base …. there are about 20 million people within two hours of the airport.”

Prior to covid, Virgin Atlantic had a strategy to substantially increase flights from Manchester by capitalising on the demise of Thomas Cook, which operated to 12 long haul destinations.

Those plans included building a Clubhouse in Manchester Airport to ‘level up’ the departure experience with that at Heathrow.

Whether through covid or through changing priorities (likely both), neither materialised. There are still only five destinations you can fly to directly from Manchester – Atlanta, Barbados, Orlando, Las Vegas and New York – and the long-delayed Clubhouse project was officially cancelled this year.

“For the level of activity there, we just couldn’t justify level of investment for a Clubhouse. It was a commercial decision.”

For now, large-scale expansion at Manchester appears off the cards. “You can think of adding another one or two planes to both Heathrow and Manchester”…. but with just five planes out of a fleet of 45 based at at Manchester, it will remain a much smaller operation.

For now, at least, Virgin’s pre-covid growth plans at Manchester have been put on ice. Shai told me that it’s doing very well – despite competition from the new Aer Lingus flights to the US – and they’re happy with their position in the market.

“If more opportunities present themselves and demand is greater, we will fly even more from Manchester.”

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards

How to earn Virgin Points from UK credit cards (July 2024)

As a reminder, there are various ways of earning Virgin Points from UK credit cards.  Many cards also have generous sign-up bonuses.

You can choose from two official Virgin Atlantic credit cards (apply here, the Reward+ card has a bonus of 18,000 Virgin Points and the free card has a bonus of 3,000 Virgin Points):

Virgin Atlantic Reward+ Mastercard

18,000 bonus points and 1.5 points for every £1 you spend Read our full review

Virgin Atlantic Reward Mastercard

3,000 bonus points, no fee and 1 point for every £1 you spend Read our full review

You can also earn Virgin Points from various American Express cards – and these have sign-up bonuses too.

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold is FREE for a year and comes with 20,000 Membership Rewards points, which convert into 20,000 Virgin Points.

American Express Preferred Rewards Gold

Your best beginner’s card – 20,000 points, FREE for a year & four airport lounge passes Read our full review

The Platinum Card from American Express comes with 40,000 Membership Rewards points, which convert into 40,000 Virgin Points.

The Platinum Card from American Express

40,000 bonus points AND (to 27th August) £400 to spend at Amex Travel Read our full review

Small business owners should consider the two American Express Business cards. Points convert at 1:1 into Virgin Points.

American Express Business Platinum

40,000 points sign-up bonus and an annual £200 Amex Travel credit Read our full review

American Express Business Gold

20,000 points sign-up bonus and FREE for a year Read our full review

Click here to read our detailed summary of all UK credit cards which earn Virgin Points

(Want to earn more Virgin Points?  Click here to see our recent articles on Virgin Atlantic and Flying Club and click here for our home page with the latest news on earning and spending other airline and hotel points.)

Comments (87)

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  • Tracey says:

    I never understand why people who live near MAN get so annoyed that flights don’t operate from there rather than LON, that they happily take connection flights via DUB or AMS etc rather than change in LON. It is as if they think their actions will mean that airlines will return to MAN.

    • Marco says:

      Because not everyone wants to fly BA, Tracey. Short BA flights MAN-LHR are often 2-3h late or cancelled last minute. Train to LHR takes 4-5 hours. I takes ZERO sense to fly via LON if you want to go anywhere east….

    • TGLoyalty says:

      The airlines can see who is going MAN to wherever via every carrier so makes no difference.

      They aren’t going to suddenly go direct when they can see you’re willing to
      connect via LHR

    • Throwawayname says:

      I think it’s because LHR just isn’t a good place to connect, even CDG is much better nowadays! They also seem to say that it’s not easy for them to use miles- but MAN does offer lots of redemption opportunities on all alliances. Those living near the likes of HUY or NQY don’t have it any easier (EMA and BRS are pretty weak, too, but at least they aren’t too far from bigger airports).

    • David says:

      They choose connecting flights depending on the price, the time in transit and the relative ease or difficulty of that transit, just like everyone else.

  • Alastair says:

    The uncomfortable fact is that the North West of the UK is, in European terms, actually quite a poor region. There are small pockets of wealth but nowhere near enough for MAN to support a base of long haul aircraft. Passengers will almost always have to travel via a hub, whether that’s London, Dubai etc.

    • David says:

      I’m not poor pal, and neither is anyone around me hereabouts. And I don’t live in Wilmslow or Prestbury, Low cost long haul is manageable in the western hemisphere even if still the preserve of the east and there are airlines at Manchester doing that. People travelling on business can do that from any airport and MAN consolidates mid and long haul demand from the entirety of the north, which counts over 25 million people. The real villain in all this is the laughably named ‘British Airways’ and the wretched Walsh in particular who took a dislike to Manchester and Birmingham from the moment he set foot in his office.

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

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