Virgin Atlantic plans to make Manchester airport a network hub for the airline, with more long-haul routes to be introduced to link to recently-acquired regional capacity.
The airline’s European vice president, commercial Juha Jarvinen, said Manchester is “our second home” and the “Thomas Cook’s demise gives us an opportunity”.
The airline recently announced the new name – Virgin Connect – of regional carrier Flybe, which it led a consortium to acquire earlier this year. Flybe has more than 300 slots at Manchester flying on regional and domestic routes.
On the airline’s flight celebrating its new direct route from Heathrow to Tel Aviv, Jarvinen told Travel Weekly: “We are certainly finalising our Thomas Cook actions and we hope to be able to further strengthen our offering for next year [from Manchester].
“We will be offering more flights to certain destinations for next winter and we are definitely exploring new destinations from Manchester.
“That was originally our plan but Thomas Cook’s demise gives us an opportunity. Manchester is definitely our second home and is a region that is underserved both in business and leisure [routes]. We are hoping to further develop Manchester connectivity and are finalising next summer’s flights.
“By growing Manchester connectivity, we can also grow our long-haul offering there. We believe we can build a network hub in Manchester that nobody has done before. When we welcome Flybe into the Virgin family [as Virgin Connect next year] it becomes easier.”
At the press conference in Tel Aviv, chief executive Shai Weiss said: “There’s more to come. Watch our space in terms of what we will announce following the demise of iconic British brand Thomas Cook.”
The direct Manchester-Los Angles route has seen an 85% load factor, higher than Virgin’s average of around 80%, and Jarvinen said the route had “increased the number of movie producers flying to Manchester”.
Connectivity is the overall message from Virgin, which as well as the Flybe deal has also signed a joint ventures with KLM-Air France and China Eastern, as well as a codeshare agreement with Brazilian carrier Gol to connect to Virgin’s new Heathrow Sao Paulo route starting next spring.
“Up until now, Virgin Atlantic has been serving London and Manchester to the world,” Jarvinen told Travel Weekly. “In order to diversify the offering, we need to have the regional connectivity as well. Customers don’t just want to fly out of London and Manchester. We should be offering European short-haul and domestic as well.”
The airline also wants to boost its connectivity out of Heathrow, where Flybe only has 12 slots. Jarvinen said this was more difficult because of the allocation of slots which Virgin Atlantic has for a long time claimed has been unfairly weighted towards its rival British Airways.
Jarvinen reiterated chief executive Shai Weiss’ calls for Heathrow to allocate more slots to BA’s competitors when Heathrow’s third runway is built.
“The problem with Heathrow is that it is full,” he said. “So we have been unable to grow.
“We believe the current global allocation method is not fair for the consumers. If we follow that then BA will get around 60% of the new slots [at runway three] which is not in the interests of the consumer.”
“This is the largest airport infrastructure project in Europe and therefore this method should change because this is a traumatic change in capacity.”
The new Tel Aviv route has “exceeded expectations”, added Jarvinen – who said its load factor was around 90%. He said the split of passengers was roughly three ways between Britons, Americans and Israelis, with many opting to connect between the US and Tel Aviv via London.
“We believe we have the range of products to give the route the right mix.”
A Manchester airport spokesman said: “We have been pleased to support Virgin Atlantic’s growth in recent years, which has seen it increase the number of seats on sale by 20% and establish new direct links from Manchester to destinations like Los Angeles and Atlanta.
“As recently as this September, Virgin announced an increase in capacity from Manchester and we look forward to working with the airline as it looks to further grow its presence here, in recognition of the strength of the northern market.”