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Virgin plans massive growth

Transforming competition at an expanded Heathrow airport

Virgin Airlines’ announcement to greatly expand services from an expanded Heathrow may be music to the ears of some, although British Airways (BA) may not be quite so keen. Neither will those opposed to a larger and busier West London hub.

What seems obvious however is that demand is such that Virgin sees a viable opportunity to grow its business – or is it really a viable opportunity? While there may be a case for suggesting that long-haul routes can provide suitable growth it has been tried before.

British Caledonian is the most obvious example, with their route structure from Gatwick. BCAL as they were often known however, almost went bankrupt, as have numerous other UK airlines that have tried to compete with British Airways (and before them, BOAC and BEA). None have survived.

All of those failed carriers, Dan Air, British Island Airways and, going back decades, airlines like Autair (who later became Court Line and ultimately went bust in the 1970s) flew from Gatwick, not Heathrow. Autair did in fact operate from Heathrow, as did British Eagle, who also failed and one other airline that took on BA was British Midland (BMI).

British Midland, like most of the others, had their roots in flying from regional airports to holiday destinations but evolved into BA’s main competitor at Heathrow. Going back to the days of Autair, they too had a range of UK domestic services from the west London airport but withdrew as they could not make enough money to survive. British Midland however, appeared to have everything going for them – until they tried to expand into long-haul.

Acquiring three Airbus A330 aircraft for use on longer ranger routes, BMI were unable to get enough landing and take-off slots at Heathrow to use them. They ended up leasing the aircraft to other airlines or flying them from Manchester. Like British Caledonian, BMI found it was unable to operate a strong enough short-haul network to support additional long-haul services. So why is it that BA has been able to?

(above - British Airways)