Virgin Atlantic Prepares To Retire Last 747s Out Of Heathrow in Favor Of More 787-9s

I recently read about the scheduled retirement of the last 747s out of Heathrow for Virgin Atlantic and it got me thinking a bit about the history of Virgin.  It’s an airline younger than me (started in the mid-80s) that primarily relies on long-distance point-to-point flights, something you don’t see a lot of.

ETA: As Angus pointed out in the comments below, I misread the original announcement to mean Virgin was retiring the last of the 747s.  For now, it looks like their only ceasing 747 service out of LHR.  I don’t see anywhere these 747s are being repurposed to, and I don’t see where these ones specifically were refurbished after the Gatwick/Manchester bunch.  So, that may ultimately drop the fleet to 9 current 747s (I’m assuming 1X each for MIA and JFK but haven’t gone through the rest of the schedules to try and figure that out).

It’s not terribly surprising that Virgin is moving to a more nimble fleet.  I’m already on record on the lack of orders for big planes like the 747-8i and A380.  Virgin received their first 747 back in the mid-80s, and that wasn’t even a brand new one, so some of those birds have definitely had a long life.  Gatwick and Manchester planes were refurbished back in 2012 so may have a few years left before they’re past their prime.  Virgin doesn’t have the short-haul operations to feed bigger planes that British Airways or the domestic US airlines have, so buying more big planes just wouldn’t be a smart move, given the cities they fly to.

Virgin Atlantic

When bmi died/was absorbed by British Airways, Virgin Atlantic decided to give the short-haul business a try with Little Red.  Ultimately, one of the factors that lead to its demise was the lack of ability to turn those Little Red passengers into “Big Red” passengers, getting them to connect onto Virgin Atlantic overseas flights.

I went hunting to see what Virgin Atlantic’s fleet will look like after the retirement of the 747s and found this interesting article that covers a lot of ground about Virgin.  It also contains an overview of their fleet:

Virgin Atlantic

The fleet is heavily skewed to Airbus currently, especially given the drawn down of the 747.  This isn’t terribly surprising given Virgin’s proximity to Airbus’ headquarters, but they balance this out with the 21 future orders for the 787-9.

I thought it was interesting that they chose the -9 version instead of the -8.  Both 787s fly roughly the same distance and are more than capable of handling the company’s existing longest routes of about 6,000 miles with at least 1,000 extra miles of range (2,000 in optimal cases).  But, the 787-9 is able to carry roughly another 40 passengers.  The first 787-9 was delivered just about 6 months ago, so we’re still waiting for extensive fuel consumption data. But, considering the -9 is essentially just a stretch version of the -8, I suspect it will eat more fuel.   That means Virgin Atlantic is betting they’ll be able to fill those planes on a consistent basis.

As Virgin continues to focus more on trans-Atlantic flights (they axed Tokyo, Mumbai and Cape Town mainly to increase frequency to the US), their partnership with Delta (Delta owns 49% of Virgin Atlantic) should push them into more frequent departures and smaller planes.  That makes it unlikely that they pick up the A380 options, maybe converting them to A350s.  When they placed the 787-9 order in 2007, they didn’t have the Delta partnership.  I wonder if, given the cooperation in the TATL market, they would have opted for smaller planes and higher frequency in combination with Delta.  Since they’re actively talking about the 787-10, I may be wrong.

At any rate, I think it’s interesting to consider Virgin Atlantic as a stand-out from many of its peers.  They have no short-haul network to feed people to their planes in Europe, though they now have that in the US with partner Delta.  They’ve found a way to make a go of it where others have not, filling planes with plenty of premium seats to far away destinations without the benefit of feed their competitors have. And, they’ve done it predominately out of Heathrow, a complicated airport with a huge competitor, British Airways right alongside them.

I’ve never flown Virgin Atlantic but hope to chalk up a 787-9 in their livery at some point in the future.  Heck, maybe even a 787-10.

The post Virgin Atlantic Prepares To Retire Last of the 747s in Favor Of More 787-9s was published first on Pizza In Motion.

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  1. Yet again more wrong information on this blog. The announcement clearly states that they are scheduling their last LHR operations of the 747. They will still fly the 747 out of Glasgow, Gatwick, and Manchester for many years. Please get your facts right!

    1. Angus, thanks for pointing out my error! I completely misread the announcement. I’ll need to do some research about the remaining 747s to see whether the fleet replacement strategy is to kill those after they wear out the interiors again. Looks like they were last renovated in 2012 so probably still in decent shape. With the delivery schedule of the 787s it seems the arrival of new 787-9s will outpace the planned increases in service.

    1. Biggles, thanks for the article. As the article states, a lot of those changes have already been folded into the -8. It doesn’t surprise me that the lessons from the -8 are being applied to the -9, but I’d expect most of those changes (minus those that are cost prohibitive without a big enough backlog on the -8) to be folded into the -8. I seem to recall reading somewhere, too, that Boeing was trying to encourage customers to move to the -9. I assume that’s a cost-saving move so they don’t have to update multiple lines/tooling with the same changes, so something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  2. This is the airplane I most hate to see go. I have a lot of fond memories from the 80’s and 90’s, of flying, sometime upstairs, in Pan Am and TWA 747’s. My first flight that I recall was as a small child on a Pan Am flight in the early 70’s. I was so excited that I just couldn’t sleep, so the stewardess (remember the period) gave me a tour of the airplane. I was amazed that there was an upstairs, where I got to meet the pilots, after passing through the lounge where someone was playing on a baby grand piano. Quite the experience.

    1. Christian, I’m envious of that memory. I never got to fly Pan Am but always loved the way those big birds looked when I went to the airport.

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