News

Virgin plans business class only airline

4 Jun 2007 by business traveller

Virgin Atlantic has announced it intends to establish a business class carrier aimed at serving New York and other US cities. Services would start within the next 18 months. Initially they would depart mainland European cities like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Paris and Zurich

Virgin Atlantic has announced it intends to establish a business class carrier aimed at serving New York and other US cities.

Services would start within the next 18 months. Initially they would depart mainland European cities like Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Milan, Paris and Zurich. But Virgin indicates it also plans flights from the UK at a later date but possibly from airports other than Heathrow to avoid competing with its existing services.

Further details remain sketchy and Virgin can say nothing more. But Sir Richard Branson's airline is reportedly in talks with the plane manufacturers with a view to acquiring a number of narrow-bodied craft.

Details of business class seating haven't been made available. But narrow-bodied planes like the Airbus A319 and B737 cannot accommodate today's heavy fully-flat seats because of space and weight constraints.

As a result Swiss carrier Privatair (which operates business class only transatlantic flights with these craft on behalf of Lufthansa, Swiss and KLM) has developed a lightweight angled lie-flat seat instead. This special seat offers 60 inches of legroom with a 172 degree angle of recline.

But Virgin's move into the mainland European market is a challenging one for a number of reasons:

• Virgin doesn't have the brand identity or reputation which it enjoys in its home market.
• Paris excepted, Business class prices out of mainland European hubs are lower than from Heathrow (see below) so Virgin will have to work harder to make a profit.
• Air France, Lufthansa and Swiss have a far greater dominance of their main hubs than does British Airways at Heathrow. Says a spokesman for Frankfurt airport, "Lufthansa is our biggest customer by far. It accounts for 56 per cent of all flight movements at Frankfurt and carries 59% of all passengers here." It is inconceivable that heavyweights like Air France and Lufthansa would stand idly by and let Virgin poach their prime customers.
• Unlike Virgin Atlantic these carriers and their alliance partners like United, Delta and Northwest all offer their customers powerful global loyalty programmes.

Existing all business class US flights from mainland Europe are operated by Lufthansa to New York and Chicago from Dusseldorf and Munich, by Swiss to New York from Zurich and by KLM to Houston from Amsterdam. French carrier L'Avion recently started a service from Paris Orly to New York.

Return business class fares compared:

From Heathrow with Virgin Atlantic - £3,998
From Amsterdam with KLM - £2,567
From Frankfurt with Lufthansa £2,248
From Milan with Alitalia/Delta - £1,939
From Paris CDG with Air France - £3,902
From Zurich with Continental - £2,793

(All fares sourced from Travelocity. Prices were checked on June 4 and refer to flights departing on June 17, returning on June 21.)

Report by Alex McWhirter

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