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The airline contends that new routes take time to gain customers, but travelers’ preference for more expensive trains over flights suggests Virgin is trying to fill a need that just isn’t there.
Virgin Atlantic’s domestic service has been described as “financially disastrous”, with planes flying at just one-third capacity.
The Independent reports that the venture, which was launched in April linking Heathrow with Manchester, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, has suffered from dismal sales, even though tickets are cheaper than equivalent journeys on Virgin Trains.
Virgin estimated that between 250,000 and 300,000 passengers had flown with on its domestic routes – branded as “Little Red” – in the six months since its launch.
But the newspaper calculated that 825,000 seats were available during that time, meaning flights have been only one-third full, on average. Simon Calder, the Independent’s travel editor, yesterday boarded a flight to Manchester and said he was one of only 46 passengers on board (the Airbus A320 he flew on had room for 174). On the return leg, just 37 people accompanied him.
While industry insiders estimate that losses on the domestic routes could amount to £2m or £3m per week, a spokeswoman for Virgin Atlantic remained confident that Little Red would succeed. She said: “As with any new route it takes time for customers to become fully aware of our service. It is normal to have comparatively low load factors in the first six months… Our business plan allowed for this. Bookings for future travel continue to grow steadily.”
At the high-profile launch of the domestic venture, Sir Richard Branson – wearing a kilt, as the event took place in Scotland – said the move would bring greater choice for consumers, potentially pushing down prices. He then lifted up his kilt to reveal a pair of white underpants with the slogan “Stiff competition” on the front.
Fares for the rest of October currently start at £68 return for Heathrow-Aberdeen, and £53 return for Heathrow-Edinburgh, and Heathrow-Manchester.
The Little Red planes are “wet leased” from Aer Lingus, the Irish flag carrier, meaning Aer Lingus employs the cockpit and the cabin crew, but the flight operate under the Virgin brand.