the tail of an airplane

Why Does Virgin Keep Sending Its Worst Plane To Launch Routes?

Lately, Virgin Atlantic has mastered pulling out. For a brand built on sex appeal, it’s all too amusing to cover. Routes that are supposed to launch, get prematurely … what’s the word… and routes only just launched with much fanfare… get, is ejected the word?

These false start things happen to airlines on a one off basis, but with Sao Paulo and Austin getting nixed in such close proximity and wobbles around recent launches, it’s more of a trend than an one-off oops for the “Red” airline with so much hope and potential. With the Maldives, Dubai and more, there’s new skin in the game too.

If you ask me, there’s a fairly plausible reason for the premature pull outs and it’s one that there seems to be no immediate reprieve from for Virgin. Virgin keeps sending its worst plane to its hottest new destinations, and people just aren’t as naive as they used to be.

Why, when their A350’s and A330neo’s are so good and planes are being delivered, are routes getting launched with one of the worst planes in the Virgin fleet?

the tail of an airplane

Virgin 787 “Dreamliner” Proving Not So Dreamy

The 787 Dreamliner has been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster for Virgin Atlantic and it’s continues to cost them real dollars and potential fans on a daily basis. That experience hasn’t necessarily been shared by other airlines and the plane itself is a phenomenal achievement.

I was on one of Virgin Atlantic’s recently when a passenger was so mortified by the Upper Class layout, they went on a full on tirade.

To start, these planes were delivered in 2014 with cabins barely updated in 13 years, so the person I encountered on that plane was indeed insane, but also not wrong.

Making matters historically even worse, Virgin’s engine choice on the 787, the Rolls Royce Trent 1000’s were the ones caught up in the TV newsworthy maintenance issues a few years ago which saw them pulled out of service more often than not, and at one point even at risk of losing their ability to fly transatlantic. That’s been resolved, albeit at great expense.

Virgin’s OG “Upper Class Suite” debuted in 2003 and is still visually identical to the 787 Dreamliner Upper Class Suite flying today with zero privacy and awkward seating. To receive a brand new plane 13 years on with no meaningful seat update, is a surprising choice.

The Virgin Crews can bring their inimitable charm, the food and drinks can be good and the ground experience can be among the best in the biz, but you’re still dressing up a bottom five onboard seating experience in today’s time with 787 Upper Class.

Here now on the cusp of 2024, these nearly ten year young planes seem to remain a source of constant frustration for Virgin, yet Despite this, they’re launching routes for the airline and acting as a flagship?

a group of people standing in front of an airplane
“Y’all come back now”

Premature Exits

What’s important to note, is that unless there’s insane demand in the back, which there rarely is these days, routes are launched for corporate customers buying up bulk in the front of the plane.

The rest is gravy to play with. Important gravy, but a plane with a full cabin up front on corporate tickets is already a route success.

Which brings us to today, where virtually every route Virgin Atlantic has launched, has been launched with a Boeing 787-9 “Dreamliner”.

These planes feature a solid Virgin Atlantic economy experience, good premium economy, and in today’s landscape, an absolutely terrible Upper Class experience that’s almost old enough to drink in a U.S. bar, at 20 years old and counting.

Spare me the “first world problems” nonsense, because this is a commercial convo about the economics and factors of launching a route, particularly when a route gets ditched. Am I happier in any business class than economy? Yes, but that’s not the point here.

I can’t help but worry about the success of the new Maldives launch, the Dubai launch, the Bangalore launch or any other route launched with the 787-9, given the market we are in and the transparency new online sales tools offer.

I feel for Virgin in the sense that there aren’t other planes laying around to launch with. But at the same time, they’ve had almost exactly a decade to upgrade these planes to cabins which could compete head to head against the likes of Qatar, Emirates, Delta, United, BA or American. No updates.

At the time of Virgin’s Dreamliner launch in 2014 it was plenty competitive with BA still flying “dorm style” business class with 8 seats across, but airlines invested and caught up massively from 2017-2020 and continue to coming out of 2022.

Virgin aims to compete with BA — and BA has their newest seats on all US routes.

Economy Cabin Hasn’t Rebounded

Business class launches routes and certainly sustains them these days. Historically, economy was easy to fill and business was the challenge, but that’s been turned on its head post 2022 for competitive airlines.

Airlines are really struggling to sell economy right now as more people trade up and making matters worse for revenue, there’s more price sensitivity now, with long haul, low cost airlines doing their bit in the free market. Even if the cabin is well sold, margin is rarely the same. Premium is doing well but its the smallest cabin and often still not as high of a margin driving product as business class.


A Hard Corporate Sell

Virgin Atlantic admitted as such in cancelling Austin, citing a lack of the anticipated business demand from potential tech customers as a key driver for the pull out. People have Google now, and they can see comparisons between cabins quite quickly.

One can only wonder whether this was the case for the second quashed Sao Paulo launch.

In Austin, Virgin had hoped to siphon off business from British Airways and others operating the route, but In that apples to apples comparison, Virgin launched with the “coffin” style 787 Upper Class directly against British Airways “new” Club Suites.

One option features privacy doors, large responsive touch screens, an excellent table for work and dining, with a top 5 business class seating setup. The other, a coffin style seat, a tiny pixelated screen and a setup which you’re either sleeping in, or upright.

Thankfully for Tampa, which appears to still be a Virgin route, the flight was launched with the A330neo, which I’d argue is one of the best business class experiences in the world. That’s an easy product to win new business with, particularly when you’ve got the direct flight.

I can’t think of a corporate travel manager in their right mind who would sign off on a contract placing their employees deemed valuable enough for business class in the old 787 Upper Class seats versus an A350 Club Suite. The contract savings would have to be massive. The A330neo Upper Class vs the Club Suite, that’s a no discount needed situation and one with stellar traveler feedback.

It’s hard to see how the Austin route ever stood a real chance of gaining corporate traction. That’s where my fear is for other Virgin launches, or scrapped launches will always be, as long as the 787 is the chosen aircraft. I can only applaud the sales teams sent in that achieved anything in those battles.

Inferior Competition?

I love airline competition. Free markets have always made the flying experience better, from pricing to cabins. With that enterprising mindset, I just can’t understand how this clever airline continues to shoot itself in the foot, and stunt its own growth.

Even if I were to have an affinity for the Virgin brand, the customer support and the loyalty program, I wouldn’t put my own travelers in the 787 when far superior seating exists on competitors.

For the sake of passengers, prices and cabins all around the world, I really hope Virgin stops flying its 787 on new routes so that it can gain more market traction. Or maybe, give the aging Upper Class cabin the snip. It can’t come prematurely enough.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. Virgin’s biggest challenge isn’t the product. They do not operate a connecting hub at Heathrow. They do sell some connections but they don’t have banks to facilitate them. That’s a function of their cobbled-together slot portfolio.

    As a result they’re almost entirely reliant on O/D traffic, except for flights to Delta hubs which provides them with feed, and makes launching new routes difficult except where those routes have excess/unmet demand.

    Austin is the perfect example. There’s really no Delta feed to speak of. They launched against British Airways, which has real connecting feed and sells real onward connections at Heathrow *and* American has a bigger customer base in Austin than Delta does. For months they were running with load factors in the 20s though this improved in the months prior to announcing the route’s termination.

    Virgin Red was an important experiment even though it didn’t work out. They should really enter a joint venture with Korean Air, but Delta needs them to feign competition on the Seoul – London route. Ultimately though the constraint they face is their slot portfolio which is too small and not well-enough timed.

    Though they do need to retrofit those 787s or get rid of them!

    1. I think we’re saying the same thing, but I’m approaching it from the perspective of if you lack connecting traffic and the other factors you mention, you need to be able to differentiate on product to steal business and have that hook of opportunity to push the convo. Fortunately much of the VS brand does that but the 787 is that thorn where I know from too many key decision makers at large corporates that it’s just a non-starter for them, often based on employee feedback.

      Dubai is another one where it’s intensely competitive now, and they’re entering with one of the few products that makes Emirates 777’s competitive in business. And even those we know are getting a retrofit!

  2. I flew Upper Class for the first (and last( time in 2019 and my internal reaction was just like 8G. Except of course I didn’t say anything.

    There are plenty of other acceptable 787 J layout. Whoever designed and approved that seating layout should have been fired.

  3. Can’t agree more. It was a disaster to fly with them to and from Austin which such planes. I can say myself that the experience on BA A350 was amazing in both premium and biz.

    1. I have to say that my experience of Virgin Economy is woeful. The Manchester based crew on flights between there and MCO varied from disinterested to actually downright rude. Legroom was cramped, food was at best average, and their so-called ” customer service ” when a complaint was made , was abysmal…..indeed unresponsive. In my opinion, Virgin is the most over-hyped airline in the air. Goodness knows how much they’ve spent on their current advertising campaign – they would have been wiser to have spent the money on improving their Economy product, and actually have a customer service centre that does its job properly. I certainly won’t be using Virgin again, as there are better airlines out there for those of us who fly at the back of the aircraft !!

  4. I think re connecting traffic/feed….bang on. And I think that’s why Sao Paulo got the chop and routes like Bangalore, Dubai and Maldives are launching – they will be able to tap into both local UK traffic on those routes as well as americans from the east coast where VS has good coverage flying say Boston to Male or Dubai.

    On the subject of the inflight hard product – couldn’t agree more Gilbert. I think it is ridiculous that VS have not updated their 787 product. BA got a lot of stick for taking their sweet time with their old Club product but in fairness they have HUNDREDS of aircraft they have to refit. Virgin has 17 787’s. Yeah, that does represent a good chunk of their fleet but surely they could cycle them through a refit one by one instead of jumping on new routes and then cancelling them?

    1. Yeah I know growth is growth, but the temporary pain of for every 330neo that comes into service, yank a 787 out and get it a quick retrofit (only one cabin, after all!) and get some excitement on these routes which are bleeding business interest.

  5. I totally agree; Virgin are just not able to compete with the old Upper seat (majority of the fleet) against Club Suite or even JetBlues business on trans-atlantic flights. I am actually moving from flying club to executive club for that very reason. On top of that even with a sale (33% off) I had to pay £1005 in taxes and then end up with quite possibly the worst business class seat in the sky. I’m afraid I see virgin facing a lot of headwind in the very near future when the travel market stabilises and competition to attract new customers kicks off again

    1. The sad fact is it’s not just Club Suite they can’t compete with, it is pretty much every airline out there.

      Damn, even LATAM who has the most mediocre inflight service you can get has retrofitted 777’s on the LHR route with very good seating. If your product can’t compete with LATAM there is really something wrong.

      The only other airline I know that still has the VS seat is Air NZ. And, reading reviews, it is suffering exactly the same issues with customer disappointment.

  6. So they really have no plans to refurbish the 787s? How is that a competitive strategy? They surely have enough spare planes that they can refurb one 787 at a time for the next 2 years?

    If they still had the 2 hub LHR and LGW route network, they could shift all the 787s to LGW for leisure routes to the Caribbean plus Orlando and Vegas, and keep LHR as solely A350 + A330neo flights. That would make a lot more sense than the current mess.

  7. Never flown with Virgin but the mention of ‘787 Dreamliner’ puts me off straightaway. Have flown in business class in 787s with other airlines & try to avoid them. Give me an A350 anyday.

  8. Flew Virgin Upper class Yesterday on the Dubai Route , Only reason I flew it was I had half an unused Voucher .

    Why they fly Their new planes to India instead of Dubai is perplexing as you mentioned .
    The food was very average and Ba Business Food for me was much better based on the last 2 experiences. There was Use of the Skyteam lounge in Dubai

    1. Flew Virgin UC to India in July. Originally aircraft was showing A350 but then got switched to 787 after a few months of booking. It was so disappointing and wasn’t a great experience. Wife’s seat was broken, they forgot to serve my dinner (took 4hrs into a night flight), UC staff were average compared to previous experiences and that configuration just doesn’t work. Have always been a VA advocate but not anymore. Only upside for me to keep collecting is VA joining sky team and getting availability in SE Asia, through KLM/AF/KA.

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