Virgin Atlantic plans to take on British Airways for Heathrow flights

Airline wants to grow global route network by 400% and challenge rival’s dominance

Virgin Atlantic has laid out plans to boost its network of international routes by more than 400% and challenge the dominance of British Airways at an expanded Heathrow.

The airline said its ambitious proposals would mean more choice and lower fares for passengers.

However, Virgin acknowledged growth would depend on how the government chooses to allocate the hundreds of new daily slots available at the London airport after the third runway is built, possibly by 2026.

Virgin currently flies to 19 long-haul destinations from Heathrow, but wants to serve 103 airports including European and domestic routes, and become a “second flag-carrier”.

The airline said the government could put “an end to IAG’s [International Airlines Group] stranglehold over the UK’s only hub airport” by allowing a serious competitor to emerge. IAG, the parent company of BA, as well as Aer Lingus, Iberia and Vueling, controls more than half of Heathrow’s slots.

Research commissioned by Virgin found one in four Heathrow passengers can only fly with IAG, and could be paying 10% more in air fares as a result.

The rules governing slot allocation at Heathrow are being reviewed by the government as part of its aviation strategy. Virgin said ministers should grasp a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to shake up the Heathrow market”.

The airline proposes to compete on 26 of the 77 routes currently operated only by IAG from the airport, ranging from Bogotá and Buenos Aires to Budapest and Barcelona.

Virgin would also add direct routes to new destinations including Kolkata, Jakarta and Panama City. Domestic routes would include Glasgow and Newcastle, likely served by the Flybe fleet acquired as part of the Connect Airways consortium, expected to soon be rebranded under a Virgin label.

Shai Weiss, Virgin Atlantic’s chief executive, said: “Never has the need for effective competition and choice at Heathrow airport been more evident than during this summer of disruption, which has brought misery for tens of thousands of travellers.

“Britain, and those who travel to it, deserve better than this. Heathrow has been dominated by one airline group for far too long.”

The airline hopes the additional capacity could be granted to airlines under similar principles to the “remedy slots” BA was forced to give up under competition rulings when it acquired BMI in 2012.

Weiss said: “This would lower fares and give real choice to passengers, as well giving Britain a real opportunity to boost its trade and investment links around the world.”

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But IAG said Virgin’s minor presence at Heathrow was down to its corporate strategy and it had previously chosen not to acquire more slots. “The facts speak for themselves,” a spokeswoman said.

“The airline has failed to create more competition at the airport – it closed Little Red on domestic routes, pulled off long-haul routes and rents out the slots it owns to other airlines to fly.”

Virgin said it was temporarily leasing out two slots until 2021.

Heathrow backed Virgin’s call for the government to change the slot allocation system. “One of the main benefits of expanding Heathrow is creating the capacity that will unlock competition among airlines, increasing choice and lowering air fares for passengers,” a spokesperson said.

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Gwyn Topham Transport correspondent

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