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Virgin Atlantic: Challenging the British Airways Dominance

A Virgin Atlantic 747 having just undergone a refit in Hong Kong outside the engineering hangar at Gatwick (Photo provided by David Dyson/Virgin Atlantic)

For years, the British international market was dominated by British Airways and its predecessors, B.O.A.C and B.E.A. Few carriers had tried to nudge into this stronghold, but most faded out into the history books. However, one remains strong and flying to this day.


In 1982, Britain was celebrating the end of the Falklands War, which kept the Falkland Islands in British hands. At this time Randolph Fields, an American Lawyer, had the idea to connect London with the Falkland Islands. Fields partnered with former Laker Airways pilot Alan Hellary to form British Atlantic Airways, a spiritual successor to Laker Airways. However, they faced a problem in the Falklands, the runway at Port Stanley was too short to serve large aircraft from Britain. The time it would take to upgrade the runway made this idea unviable.

The partnership then attempted to get approval to fly between London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK Airport. Their proposal was later met with resistance from British Airways, British Caledonian, and the BAA. Their application was rejected after three days. They then turned their focus to the low cost market between New Jersey’s Newark Airport and London’s Gatwick. Doing so would mean competing with American airline People Express. With this they decided to seek more funding.

In comes record mogul Richard Branson, who had met Fields at a party in London. He proposed his idea to Branson, and after negotiations Branson became a majority owner in the airline. The airline was also renamed to the familiar name Virgin Atlantic Airways. In June of 1984, Virgin Atlantic’s first flight took off from Gatwick flying to Newark as VS001. The airline used a leased Boeing 747-200 with the registration G-VIRG. The airline was profitable within the first year. This was due to timing the start for the strong summer months and the ability to lease a second 747 within the first few months.

The airline was successful, and throughout the rest of the 80s, the airline added aircraft and service to five new cities from Gatwick. In 1991, Virgin was given permission to serve London’s Heathrow airport. With this, Virgin engaged in war with flag carrier British Airways. This was highlighted when the CAA gave Virgin two landing slots for Toyko’s Narita airport that British Airways was not utilizing. This enabled Virgin to increase their frequency on the route and to better compete with BA. The two airlines continued to battle it out for British dominancy throughout the 1990s, highlighted by BA’s “dirty tricks” scandal and Virgin’s “No Way BA/AA” campaign.

More recently Virgin has seen their share of struggles. The airline launched a regional airline in the UK to feed their Heathrow hub, however, the service, dubbed Little Red, will end after only three years of service. The airline has also cut back service, eliminating Sydney, Mumbai, Tokyo, Cape Town, and Vancouver from their route map. They also announced layoffs of 500 employees to restructure management.

However, in 2012, Delta purchased a 49% stake in the company with the aim to operate a joint venture between Delta and Virgin. So far, the results seem positive. Virgin has opened new routes between London and Atlanta. The airline has also seen the introduction of the Boeing 787 to the fleet, which will help them reach new destinations from their London hub. Although the airline has had it’s recent struggles the new partnership with Delta makes the future look bright for the airline.


Today the Virgin Atlantic fleet is a mix of Boeing and Airbus. Presently the airline has ten Boeing 747-400s and seven Boeing 787-9s with ten more on order. The airline has ten Airbus A330-200s and eleven Airbus A340-600s. Originally, the Virgin Atlantic fleet was made up of four engine aircraft such as earlier versions of the Boeing 747 and the Airbus A340. Short-haul, the airline had previously operated the Airbus A320 and the Airbus A321 in an attempt to fly intra-European routes, which sputtered out.

As of now the future of the fleet appears to be the Boeing 787 as the airline looks to replace the aging fleet of Airbus A340s and the Boeing 747s. The 787 also helps them operate to smaller, thinner routes in which larger aircraft would not be viable.


Virgin’s main focus is on long haul flights from London’s Heathrow and Gatwick airport. The airline focuses on many leisure destinations such as Antigua and Miami in the Caribbean and Las Vegas on the West Coast. They also serve business destinations such as New York and San Francisco and also cater to ex-pats with routes to Delhi and Hong Kong.

Daniel Morley


  • Daniel Morley

    Daniel has always had aviation in his life; from moving to the United States when he was two, to family vacations across the U.S., and back to his native England. He currently resides in South Florida and attends Nova Southeastern University, studying Human Factors in Aviation. Daniel has his Commercial Certificate for both land and sea, and hopes to one day join the major airlines.

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