Virgin Atlantic is finalising plans for a new route, with a US destination expected to be revealed in the coming weeks.
Chief commercial officer Juha Jarvinen said the new destination will be operating by summer 2022, serving leisure and business travellers, as the carrier ramps back up towards pre-pandemic capacity.
He was speaking to Travel Weekly as Virgin Atlantic showcases its latest route, a twice-weekly service from Heathrow to the Bahamas.
Despite the impact of the Omicron variant, which led to South Africa and nine other African countries being placed on the UK’s red list and sparked a wave of fresh travel restrictions, Jarvinen was confident about 2022 prospects.
He reported “a slowdown in demand for December and January” including cancellations, but said: “Sales for spring and summer are continuing to trade well.
Javinen said US demand is “flat” because “everybody is waiting for new information” and that the hit to Virgin’s service to Johannesburg, South Africa, was “a big blow, but demand for next year is developing well.”
And he predicted: “By autumn 2022, capacity will be back to 2019 [levels] from Heathrow and Manchester.”
As well as the twice-weekly Bahamas services, Virgin is expanding with a seasonal winter Heathrow-St Lucia service from December 18; a twice-weekly Edinburgh to Barbados link, from December 5; and twice-weekly Edinburgh-Orlando flights from April 2022.
In November, the carrier started flying from Manchester to Jamaica, following an increase in services to Barbados from both Manchester and Heathrow.
It also started twice-weekly services to St Vincent from Heathrow in October.
“The Caribbean has always been critical part of our network and there is tremendous pent-up demand,” he said.
“It is a favourite [region] and now people want to treat themselves – both in the destination and when they are flying with us.
“The Bahamas fits into the premium leisure destination bracket and it offers year-round diversity.”
Jarvinen said the recent addition of Virgin Voyages’ itineraries in the Caribbean offers more opportunities for customers, as they can book “double red” options, combining the group’s cruises and flights.
The expansion also offers a “huge opportunity” for travel agents, he added, highlighting how consumers want to talk to a real person for advice when planning and booking flights.
He reiterated that the channel is “crucial” to Virgin, with about 60% of sales through the trade and part of its “omnichannel distribution” strategy which it has “no plans to change”.
“We are emerging from the [Covid] crisis with a great relationship with the trade,” he stressed.
As well as the leisure routes to the Caribbean and the reopening of the US in November, a key element of Virgin’s recovery is the VFR [visiting friends and relatives] traffic to destinations such as Nigeria, India and Pakistan – much of which is served by travel agents, Jarvinen added.
“We will have a boom year in 2022 – we are planning to go double-daily to Delhi, up from daily, by the spring, and Tel Aviv will go from daily to double daily,” he said.
“There is lots of family traffic from the UK and our network connections at Heathrow mean there are more connecting options from India to the US and Israel to the US.”
He said the business travel market is building back – now at about 30% of pre-pandemic levels having been just 10% a few months ago. In the US, it has rebounded to about 50% of 2019’s level, Jarvinen pointed out.