As rumoured a few weeks back, Virgin Atlantic confirmed at the Paris Airshow earlier today that they have indeed ordered the A330-900. What wasn’t expected though was that they would be replacing their current A330 fleet with them. To me this is an interesting move, as the airlines’ current A330 fleet isn’t all that old. With the exception of the four leased ex Air Berlin A330-200’s, the entire fleet will be at the worst just ten years old when the new A330’s start coming online in 2021.
The airline has ordered 14 of the new A330’s for definite and holds options for a further 6. The 14 firm orders will be a one for one replacement for their current fleet – 10 of their original A330-300’s and 4 oddball -200’s that they inherited from Air Berlin with Pratt Whitney engines. Their native A330’s have Rolls Royce Trent engines, along with their soon to be gone A340-600 fleet and their troublesome 787 fleet. With the case of the -200’s the -900’s will provide a minor increase in capacity.
There’s still a few questions that remain concerning the fleet however:
First off, what’s the state of play with the airlines’ eight remaining 747’s? I seem to remember when they were refurbished in 2011/2012, the plan was that refurbishment should see them through to retirement when their leases expire in 2019. Well, here we are in 2019 and still nothing concrete as to their future. If they’re still around when the new A330’s come online, then the youngest 747 in the fleet (G-VROY) will be twenty years old. And the oldest (G-VBIG) will have been around for a quarter of a century. Its been mentioned in a few places that the A340 fleet will be making its final flights with the airline in October 2019, once the A350’s have started to arrive.
The second question is how come the airline hasn’t kept their current A330’s for anywhere near as long? Well, this is pure speculation on my part, but my gut feeling is that they were only ever intended as a stop gap while the airline was waiting for their delayed 787’s. They had a bit of a troubled start with the airline – the first two delivered had a different cabin layout to the rest of the fleet – with economy at the front, then a premium economy cabin behind that, with another economy cabin following on from that. Due to this, G-VSXY and G-VKSS, were pretty much marooned on the VS75/76 service between Manchester and Orlando for the first 18 months until they could get a standard cabin fitted. Their non standard livery is still present to this day. The following three (G-VLUV, G-VGEM, G-VINE) went straight out to lease without ever wearing the VS livery. Two flew in the colours of China Airlines for 18 months, while the other was in plain white livery flying for Ryan International on various US Military charters. It was only once G-VRAY was delivered in 2012 with a new Upper Class cabin (which has since been ditched) were they all brought back under the Virgin Atlantic umbrella.
From the info I’ve managed to find online, all but three of their current A330’s are leased, so much like the A340-600’s they could have been on a 10 year lease. Remember, we saw the first of the type delivered, G-VSHY head back to its lessor in 2012, just short of its 10th birthday. I also seem to remember a rumour floating around in 2010 that it was Boeing that had paid for the A330’s as compensation for the 787’s coming online much later than anticipated. Quite how true this was, I don’t know, but the rumour was out there.
Thirdly, what will the airline do with the three owned A330-300’s (G-VRAY, G-VNYC, G-VWAG)? They are all 2012 builds, so won’t be all that old once their disposal comes around. I’d imagine they would easily find a new home, however if the Virgin Atlantic press release from today is to be believed, the airline is focusing on growth once more – so could they possibly stick around? It might seem like madness to keep a small subfleet of three aircraft, but the commonality is there. They have Rolls Royce Trent engines, along with the airlines A350’s, A330-900’s and 787 Dreamliners. The A330-900 shares many components with its older siblings, and I’d imagine the type rating for the crew would be the same. All of a sudden, its not so much of a subfleet of three – more an A330 fleet of 17.
Next up, what will the cabin be like? The airline recently unveiled a new Upper Class product which it said was going to be fitted to the upcoming A350 but also mentioned it wouldn’t be installed in any of their other aircraft. With todays announcement, there was talk of these new A330’s getting yet another new cabin. Whether it will be a minor modification/upgrade of the product installed in the A350 or yet another completely new product remains to be seen. But with the 787’s having a minor update to the 2003 Upper Class Suite product, that will mean that all three types of aircraft that the airline will be operating in 2024 will have a different hard product at the front end, which seems a little odd with what will be one of the youngest fleets in the sky.
With regards to routes, the airline has said that the A330-900’s won’t necessarily be based in London, which is a pretty major hint that these will be replacing not only the previously mentioned A330’s, but also the last remaining 747’s. The Airlines current A330’s are unique in that they operate out of every UK airport the airline regularly flies from – being used on both business routes out of London Heathrow and leisure routes from London Gatwick, Manchester and occasionally Glasgow. It’s a similar story for their 747’s, although they left Heathrow in early 2016 to be solely leisure based aircraft.
As of June 2019, the airline has:
- 4x A330-200
- 10x A330-300
- 5x A340-600
- 8x 747-400
- 17x 787-9
This totals 44 aircraft. By June 2024, it’s likely the fleet will consist of:
- 14(20)x A330-900
- 12x A350-1000
- 17x 787-9
Which totals 43 aircraft, or 49 if the extra 6 A330-900 options are taken up. Coupled with the capacity loss from the 747’s likely being retired by this point, then maybe the airline needs to run the numbers again if they’re planning on expanding as the A330-900 and the A330-300 have more or less the same fuselage, therefore likely to have around the same number of seats onboard. All this is assuming that the 747’s will be gone in the next few years and all the current A330’s are indeed leaving the fleet.
By looking at the above, it’s clear that the airline has definitely taken steps to cut back the number of different types in their fleet – which has grown in the last decade from just 747’s and A340’s. But what’s to say they won’t place an order for another type by then? With the current struggles at Boeing, it’s not entirely out of the question that they will come along with a too good to refuse offer for the upcoming 777X – which will certainly add plenty of capacity on those busy summer flights to Orlando. And with the recent purchase of FlyBe, it’s likely that a sizeable fleet of Bombardier Q400’s will be flying around in Virgin Atlantic livery by the early 20’s too.
Looking at the projected fleet, it seems like a sensible plan – the A350’s being the flagship and having the highest capacity, the 787’s on the thinner routes and the A330’s for the leisure routes – possibly with a smaller Upper Class cabin and a slightly larger Premium cabin. And if they needed extra capacity, order more of the same type to keep commonality costs down. But in the airline industry, money talks, and if either Boeing or Airbus came along with a good offer, it’s safe to say the airline would certainly look very strongly at it.