Virgin Atlantic plans to grow from summer 2022 after returning to pre-Covid capacity having “evolved” its network based on the impact of the pandemic.
Chief executive Shai Weiss told Travel Weekly Virgin Atlantic intends to be back at full capacity by April.
“Demand is looking up,” he said at Heathrow on Monday morning (November 8) as the carrier celebrated the reopening of the US to vaccinated UK and EU residents.
Weiss said the next few days of UK-US departures are “completely full” and that the airline was “working towards higher load factors” in the weeks ahead.
Chief commercial officer Juha Jarvinen told Travel Weekly the carrier’s load factors were over 90% on routes to Orlando, Miami and San Francisco from London this week, with these ranging from 93% to 95% as of Friday (November 5).
He said Virgin’s “sales speed” increased after announcements on US reopening on September 20 and October 15 with bookings up 60% for the airline overall, and up 100% on routes to the US, since.
Orlando, New York and Los Angeles were Virgin’s top-selling destinations, said Jarvinen, who said Las Vegas and San Francisco were also “selling very well”.
Jarvinen said Virgin is “ramping up towards the spring” explaining how the initial three daily flights to New York from Heathrow are due to increase to four before Christmas and six by summer 2022.
Part of this increase in capacity is down to an expectation that UK-US business travel will return, he said, noting “New York is probably the best example of that” with joint venture partner Delta adding a second daily Heathrow-JFK flight over winter.
“We are moving step-by-step back to normality,” said Jarvinen, predicting “US capacity overall will be back to 2019 departures by summer 2022”. Although he conceded the number of available seats “might be less” as aircraft it deploys could have less seats than Boeing 747s which previously operated some routes, and were retired in 2020.
And he noted that Virgin has been “forced to reduce some capacity down” including suspending the return of its Manchester-Los Angeles service until summer 2023.
He said London is “more stable” than other routes in terms of frequencies because Virgin “needs to protect the slots portfolio at Heathrow”.
“We see London bouncing back strongest,” Jarvinen said, noting that it had been so following previous crises such as the financial crash in 2008.
“This time there is no recession, it’s just a restriction” he pointed out. “None of us have experienced this before”
Jarvinen said there is “huge pent-up demand in leisure” travel “and we do believe there will be a bounce-back in corporate travel”, saying US domestic demand for business travel rising to 50% of pre-Covid rates was a “pretty good signal”.
However, he conceded “we believe it’s going to take multiple years before we rebound to 2019 in business traffic”, and said Virgin was expecting corporate traffic to be 35% down in 2022 with that likely to “steadily” rise again.
Jarvinen said Virgin was “reprioritising and readjusting” its network and stressed: “We are still evolving. If we can add more capacity, or destinations, we will. We are exploring opportunities for further growth in summer 2022.”
Trade sales remain strong for Virgin, said Jarvinen, with 60-65% of bookings coming via third parties – similar to pre-pandemic levels.
But he pointed out this could reflect a rise in the proportion of leisure trips being booked by travel agents, because bookings of corporate travel remain down.
“We strongly believe that customers have even more need for the trade [since Covid],” he said. “They want to be reassured or to talk to someone. We believe this is a unique opportunity for the travel trade to make sure they become travel partners for consumers.
Jarvinen said Virgin was “committed to an omni-channel distribution strategy” as the industry recovers from the impact of Covid.