Airline Profile
By Gostar den Daas | January 2004 (updated 2017)

Virgin Airlines

Insights in the Virgin Group airlines

Virgin Atlantic was developed as an offshoot of the Virgin Group founded by Richard Branson, at that time better known as the flamboyant leader of Virgin Records. Virgin Atlantic started cheap flights between London and New York in June 1984.

AviaMagazine.com looks at one of the first low budget airlines, and all it’s current and former offshoots.

History

Early 1984, Richard Branson and Randolph Fields started British Atlantic Airways as an all business configured airline between London and New York. Unfortunately, the CAA refused to give the required license and Branson tried it again through the Virgin Group.

Branson used the collapsed Laker Airways as an example to operate cheap flights. Virgin Atlantic was granted a license for flights between London and New York (Newark). Operations started on the 22nd of June 1984, using a single Boeing 747.

This was the beginning of an airline which would have many successful and less successful offshoot airlines in the US, Europe, Nigeria and Australia.


G-VIRG, B747

Offshoots

The Virgin Group has an impressive list of 13 current and former offshoot airlines. To keep track of these, we made a graphical overview.

Virgin Group offshoot timeline (307Kb)

Virgin Atlantic

The first route between London and New York was operated using a leased Boeing 747-200 (G-VIRG) called Maiden Voyager.

Five months after the first route, operations started between London and Maastricht, Netherlands using a leased BAC One-Elevens and later, Viscounts. In November 1985 a new route was added between London and Miami. In 1986, another Boeing 747 was added, with four extra to come in the following three years. With the new planes several routes were introduced, including New York JFK, Los Angeles, Boston, Tokyo and Moscow.


TF-ATN, B742

G-VZZZ, B742

G-VAEL, A343

From the start Virgin Atlantic was tangled into fears competition with British Airways. To save the airline Branson decided to sell Virgin Records to EMI for $880 million. The money gained from Virgin Records, was invested in Virgin Atlantic.

Virgin Atlantic saw the introduction of a new aircraft in 1993, when the Airbus A340 started on routes to Hong Kong and Australia. An A320 was also used on route to Athens. The A320 was later replaced by an A321 (G-VATH). In 1996 Virgin also started services on Johannesburg.


G-VSHY, A346

G-VFIZ, A346

Harry Potter c/s

In August 2002 Virgin Atlantic made its first commercial flight to New York using the new A340-600. In 2003 new routes were introduced between Gatwick and Port Harcourt, Nigeria and between Gatwick and Tobago and Grenada.

In 2014, Virgin became the first European airline using the Boeing 787-9 variant. 17 aircraft are on order with an option for 5 more. Gradually they will replace the 747.


G-VCRU, B787

G-VBIG, B744

G-VELD, A343

G-VSXY, A333

6 A380s were ordered to enter service in 2006. This was later pushed back and the aircraft are expected not to be delivered before 2018. Also A350-1000s are on order. Unclear if this order, as new flagship, will affect the A380 order.

In 2014 Virgin Atlantic scrapped several international routes, including Sydney, Tokyo and Cape Town. It took on a code share deal for transatlantic flights with Delta Air Lines. In 2015 Branson announced the airline would be in “real trouble” without the Delta Support. From 2015 onwards the airline was making profits again.

Current fleet On order Former fleet
Airbus A330 10
Airbus A340 7 22
Airbus A350 12
Airbus A380 6
Boeing 747 8 22
Boeing 787 13 4

Virgin Atlantic callsign: Virgin, IATA code: VS , ICAO code: VIR

Little Red

In 2012 Virgin Little Red was created as a subsidiary of Virgin Atlantic. The idea was to create competition on the British domestic marked, especially to compete with British Airways. Virgin obtained some slots when BMI was taken over by British Airways.

Little Red was then wet-leased by Aer Lingus, which provided four Airbus A320s and crews. Although technically Aer Lingus, the planes and crew operated with the Virgin Atlantic livery. In 2013 a new service was started with flights between Heathrow and Manchester, Edinburgh and Aberdeen.


EI-EZW, A320

The airline was troubled from the start, as Little Red had the worst loading figures of any airline, with only 37% seat occupation. Operations ceased September 2015 as Virgin Atlantic couldn’t cope with the losses. The routes were taken over by British Airways and the aircraft returned to Aer Lingus.

Former fleet
Airbus A320 6

Virgin America

The Virgin America offshoot was founded in 2004, but not started operation until 2007 due to trouble finding investors, willing to launch yet another low cost airline for domestic routes in the US. Virgin America’s main goal was to open routes coast-to-coast from major cities.

During the founding years the Air Line Pilots Association and United Airlines tried to block Virgin license to operate in the US, as it was not under US ownership. In 2006 the Department of Transportation first denied Virgins application. Due to this Virgin restructured its board and got approval in March 2007.


N835VA, A320

N849VA, A320

N530VA, A319

N527VA, A319

The inaugural flight was on August 8, 2008 from New York to Los Angeles and San Francisco using airbus A320.

The first years of operations were hard with losses mounting up. From 2010 onwards Virgin was in the green again, and expect 2012 made a profit.

In 2016 Virgin America was sold to the Alaska Air Group. At least until 2018, both airlines will be operating under there own brand. After that they will merge under a single operating certificate. If the brand will be transformed to Alaska Airlines is unclear at this point.

Current fleet On order
Airbus A319 10
Airbus A320 53
Airbus A321 1

Virgin America callsign: Redwood, IATA code: VX , ICAO code: VRD

Virgin Australia

Virgin Australia was founded as Virgin Blue in 2000. (See Virgin Blue section) Back then it only operated domestic routes. In 2006 a new subsidiary was founded for international routes, called V Australia (See V Australia section). In 2011 after a change in leadership the airlines rebranded as Virgin Australia.

In 2011 Virgin Australia signed a code-share alliance with Singapore Airlines. The next year bought a 60% stake in Tiger Airways and bought Skywest Airlines all together. The later was renamed Virgin Australia Regional Airlines, but fly with the Virgin Australia branding applied.


VH-FVL, ATR72

V Australia hybrid c/s

VH-YVD, B738

VH-ZPT, ERJ190

VH-XFC, A330

VH-VPE, B773
Current fleet On order
ATR 72 14
Airbus A330 6
Boeing 737 75 1
Boeing 777 5
Embraer ERJ-190 10

Virgin Blue

In May 2000, Australia's newest airline had announced that it would be flying under the banner of Virgin Blue. The name was chosen from the 3200 entries received in a public, "name the airline" competition with a Brisbane radio station.

The airline was launched in Australia on the 3rd of August 2000, initially offering seven return flights a day between Brisbane and Sydney. The next service was between Brisbane and Melbourne, then expanding to other destinations across Australia, beginning with a Brisbane-Adelaide link. An Adelaide-Sydney link followed in March 2001. Other routes have been added since then.


VH-VBR, B737

VH_ZHB, ERJ170

VH-VOT, B738

Butterfly Blue

VH-ZPE, ERJ190

VH-VBA, b737

Virgin Blue flies and maintains one type of aircraft, the Boeing 737. The airline minimized costs with a ticketless booking system, based on a booking number. There were no passenger lounges, "free" meals, frequent flyer programs or other gimmicks. Passengers still have the choice to purchase refreshments or not, as well as souvenirs, during the flight.

The crisis closure of the operations of Ansett (an Australian domestic airline) in September 2001, reduced and cut domestic services to some Australian centers. Virgin Blue responded with plans to bring in three aircraft from its overseas fleet, and to obtain ten former Ansett aircraft. Virgin Blue later decided to buy only new aircraft, instead of using old Ansett and Virgin Express aircraft. Virgin Blue expanded its routes to various Queensland regional centers in the same period.


50th aircraft c/s

Gillet c/s

Brisbane appron

In 2008 Virgin Blue changed the low-cost formula by adding a premium economy class. In 2011 an alliance was formed with Etihad and Air New Zealand, for code-sharing.

Former fleet
Airbus A330 2
Boeing 737 82
Embraer ERJ-170 6
Embraer ERJ-190 15

Virgin Blue callsign: Virgin, IATA code: DJ , ICAO code: VOZ

V Australia


VH-VPH, B773

When Virgin Blue announced it’s international airline, to serve the US, a competition was held to name the new offshoot. July 2007 the name V Australia was announced as winner.

An order was made for six brand new Boeing 777-300s. When service started in February 2009 a single 777-300 was leased to fly the route between Brisbane/Sydney and Los Angeles. Later new routes from Melbourne to Los Angeles, Johannesburg and Phuket were added.


In 2010 unprofitable routes to Johannesburg and Phuket were shutdown again. In 2011 a new route was added to Abu Dhabi as V Australia signed a partnership with Etihad Airways.

In December 2011 V Australia was absorbed in Virgin Australia.

Former fleet
Boeing 777-300 5

V Australia callsign: Vee-oz, IATA code: VA , ICAO code: VAU

Virgin Samoa (Polynesian Blue)

Virgin Samoa was founded as Polynesian Blue together with the government of Samoa. It took over routes previously flown by Polynesian Airlines.

When the Virgin Blue rebranded so did Polynesian Blue. Virgin Samoa now used the same livery as the main airlines, but then with Virgin Samoa titles applied.


ZK-PBF, B738

ZK-PBF, B738

Currently Virgin Samoa is operation flights between Samoa and Australia / New Zealand.

Current fleet
Boeing 737 1

Virgin Samoa callsign: Bluebird, IATA code: DJ , ICAO code: PLB

Pacific Blue

Another subsidiary of Virgin Blue was New Zealand based Pacific Blue. The airlines started operations in 2004 with flights between Christchurch and Brisbane Australia. Later in 2007 domestic flights within New Zealand were added. In 2010 the domestic routes were dropped again.

When Virgin Blue was rebranded so did Pacific Blue. It was absorbed in the Virgin Australia brand, but the aircraft kept on flying with New Zealand registrations. The last was put in the Australian register in 2015, ending operations as a separate subsidiary.


VH-ZPM, ERJ190

VH-VUM, B738

VH-VOR, B738
Former fleet
Boeing 737 14
Embraer ERJ-190 2

Pacific Blue callsign: Bluebird, IATA code: DJ , ICAO code: PBN

Virgin Nigeria

September 2004 the Virgin Group signed a deal with the Nigerian Government to start a new airline called Virgin Nigeria Airways. Virgin owned a 49% stake. Operations started 28 June 2005 with a flight from Lagos to Heathrow using a Virgin A340-300 (G-VSUN). Later an A330 was leased from BMI (G-WWBD) with Virgin Nigeria livery applied. Also an A320 (LZ-BHD) was leased from BH Air and branded.

The airline also operated leased or owned Boeing 767s (YL-LCY, YL-LCZ), Boeing 737 (5N-VNE, 5N-VNG) and Embraer 190 (5N-VNH).


LY-LCY, B763

5N-VNE, B733

August 2008 Virgin Group announced it would sell it’s 49% stake. This was done after a dispute between Virgin and the Nigerian government, moving Virgin’s operation to Lagos Terminal 2.

September 2009 the airline was rebranded Nigerian Eagle Airlines and in 2010 to Air Nigeria. (Air Nigeria ceased operations all together in September 2012.)

Former fleet
ATR 42 1
Airbus A320 2
Airbus A330 1
Airbus A340 2
Boeing 737 7
Boeing 767 2
Embraer ERJ-190 2

Virgin Nigeria callsign: Virgin Nigeria, IATA code: VK , ICAO code: VGN

Virgin Express

The company was founded in 1992 by the City Hotels Group as EuroBelgian Airlines (EBA). Operations began on the 1st of April 1992 with Boeing 737-300s using routes of the collapsed Air Europa.

After the acquisition of EBA by the Virgin Group on the 23 April 1996, the airline was renamed Virgin Express. A partnership was established with Sabena and Virgin Express took over services to London with several flights a day. In 1998 a sister company was created in Dublin. Virgin Express now operates popular European routes from Brussels to Spain, France, Sweden, Italy, Greece and the United Kingdom. There was also daily route from Amsterdam to Italy.


OO-LTU, B733

OO-VEH, B733

OO-VEP, B734

October 2004 the Virgin Group sold its shares to SN Brussels Airlines (former Sabena). Virgin Express kept flying with it’s own branding for a few years to come. March 2008 Virgin Express and SN Brussels Airlines merged into a single company, rebranded Brussels Airlines.

Former fleet
Boeing 737 27

Virgin Express callsign: Virgin Express, IATA code: TV , ICAO code: VEX

Virgin Sun


G-VTAN, A320

The Virgin Group's own tour operator, Virgin Holidays, was created to fill seats on Virgin Atlantic flights. Because Virgin Holidays offers packages to European destinations, they had to rely on other airlines. Therefore, Virgin Sun was founded in 1998. New A320s, received directly from the production line began operations on the 1st of May 1999. Initial route were flown from London and Manchester. An A321 was added to the fleet for the 2000 summer season.


G-VKIS, A321

In November 2001, Virgin Sun was sold to Air 2000. The aircraft were not included in the deal and they were returned to their lessors. The G-VTAN, G-VKID and G-VMED were stored at Filton waiting for a new operator.

Former fleet
Airbus A320 3
Airbus A321 1

Virgin Express callsign: -, IATA code: VS , ICAO code: VIR

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic was founded to provide commercial space flight. Besides space tourism, science missions and the orbital launch of small satellites are aimed for.

Virgin Galactic developed its own suborbital spacecraft called SpaceShipTwo which uses a launch vehicle called White Knight Two. The aircraft N348MS uses a twin fuselage with the spaceship hanging in between. One fuselage is an exact copy of that of SpaceShipTwo for training purposes. The other has a passenger cabin, which offer “cur-rate” trips to the stratosphere. As the service ceiling will be about 60,000 ft (18km) the aircraft can operate at the edge of space offering the dark blue sky experience.

Initial start of the space flights were planed for 2009, but delayed on a number of occasions. Recently the crash of SpaceShipTwo “VSS Enterprise” pushed the date back even more.

In 2015 Virgin announced the build of a new Launcher One platform, based on a former Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 (G-VWOW), called Cosmic Girl. The aircraft will be able to launch a payload from under the wing, port side.

Current fleet
Boeing 747 1

Aircraft losses and incidents

Date, Aircraft Notes
5 November 1997, G-VSKY Upon landing at Heathrow after a flight from Los Angeles, the main landing gear wouldn’t lower on this A340-300. After attempts to get it unlocked an emergency landing was made in which engines 1,2 and 4 where badly damaged. People were evacuated with some minor injuries. There aircraft was repaired and re-entered service.
8 February 2005, G-VATL A A340-600 en route from Hong Kong to Heathrow suffered a fuel control computer issue. Two engines lost power, one shutting down completely. After the crew started manual transfer of fuel the aircraft diverted to Amsterdam and landed safely.

All fleet statistics were noted February 2017.

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