Virgin Atlantic has unveiled ambitions to establish a network of short-haul passenger flights using eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) aircraft.

The carrier has partnered with Bristol-based manufacturer Vertical Aerospace, with options to purchase up to 150 eVTOL aircraft.

The two firms will explore a UK joint venture aimed at establishing short haul, electric aircraft connectivity between UK cities and airport hubs starting with London Heathrow, Manchester and London Gatwick.

The Virgin Atlantic-branded service would use fully-electric, zero emission VA-X4 aircraft, which can carry up to four passengers in addition to the pilot, and have a range of over 100 miles.

Virgin said that the VA-X4 “has four tilting advanced rotors at the front and stowable rotors at the rear, capable of speeds over 200mph, and is set to revolutionise urban mobility and electrify air travel, with certification to the same safety standards as commercial airliners”.

A full-scale prototype of the aircraft is currently in production, with the first test flight slated for later this year. Commercial operation are planned for 2024 following relevant certifications by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Virgin sees the partnership as a way of enabling “sustainable, price competitive, regional connectivity across the first and last 100 miles of the customer journey”.

The carrier said that there are 37 towns and cities with populations over 100,000 within 100 miles of Heathrow, an example being the 56-mile journey from Cambridge, which it said could be reduced from the current one and a half hour road trip to just 22 minutes by air.

Vertical Aerospace said it had received conditional pre-orders for up 1,000 eVTOL aircraft from firms including American Airlines and leasing company Avolon, and plans to list on the New York Stock Exchange following a merger with Broadstone Acquisition Corp.

Commenting on the news Shai Weiss, CEO, Virgin Atlantic said:

“With innovation and sustainability leadership firmly in our DNA, we are excited to be partnering with Vertical Aerospace to pioneer sustainable and zero emissions air travel in the UK. We pride ourselves on building enduring strategic partnerships and are thrilled to be working alongside Vertical in its mission to bring eVTOL travel to the UK.

“Our partnership includes an option for Virgin Atlantic to acquire up to 150 eVTOL VA-X4 aircraft and exploration of a Joint Venture to bring short haul, electric vehicle connectivity to cities and our UK airport hubs, starting with London Heathrow as well as Manchester and London Gatwick.

“Combining the design, engineering and manufacturing expertise of Vertical with the award-winning customer experience and operational excellence of Virgin Atlantic.”

Earlier this year United Airlines signed a deal with sustainable air mobility firm Archer Aviation to accelerate the production of eVTOL aircraft.

United partners with Archer Aviation to develop electric aircraft


Analysis from Alex McWhirter:

Reading Mark’s piece today I wondered why major airlines in mainland Europe lacked the vision of Virgin Atlantic.

But then I remembered that mainland Europe has embraced rail-air and that almost all its major hubs are now connected so passengers can reach them by both long- and short-distance trains.

Chief exception being Munich, Lufthansa’s second hub, which only has rail access by S-Bahn.

I agree that all three airports mentioned by Virgin Atlantic have rail access of one sort or another but they lack the sort of rail access enjoyed by Frankfurt, Paris CDG, Amsterdam and so on.,