When Virgin Atlantic refurbished their leisure fleet of Boeing 747’s in 2011/2012, I vaguely remember the talk at the time being that they would be around until 2019, at which point their leases would expire. Well, here we are in 2019 and as yet the fleet is still going reasonably strong. Whilst the airlines’ older 747’s left Heathrow at the beginning of 2016, eight of them have been working the leisure routes since then. These include the five originally destined for Alitalia that were delivered in 2001 to replace the classic 747-200 fleet, plus three that moved over from Heathrow between 2005 and 2016. One member, G-VTOP left the Virgin Atlantic fleet in January 2013 to move to Orient Thai Airlines before being broken up in June 2018.
According to FlightRadar24, most of the Virgin Atlantic 747’s operate out of Manchester these days, with a couple taking up residency at London Gatwick plus further aircraft operating the seasonal routes from Glasgow and Belfast to Orlando.
Come winter 2020 though, from what I’ve been able to find from making a dummy booking on every Gatwick and Manchester route via virginatlantic.com, the picture is very different. A lot of the current routes from Manchester appear to have been suspended including Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, one of the Orlando flights and the recently launched Los Angeles route. Understandably, Orlando sees the biggest cuts over the winter season with one flight being cut from Belfast, Glasgow, London Gatwick and Manchester. So there is an awful lot of spare capacity in the fleet. Out of the current 747 routes, only the VS75 from Manchester to Orlando, the VS66 between London Gatwick and Montego Bay and the VS27 from London Gatwick to Orlando are still operated by the jumbo. The remaining routes are scheduled to be operated by the oddball A330-200 from what I could see from the schedules. Of course, it could be a case that the schedules on the airlines website hasn’t been updated yet, but 747’s are getting on a bit now, and the airline has made it known that they will be gone by the early 2020’s. The three routes that are still due to be operated by 747’s can easily be completed within a 24 hour period, so just the three aircraft will be needed. Which is the number that the airline own from what I recall – don’t quote me on this but I seem to remember the 5 original Gatwick deliveries (G-VROS, G-VGAL, G-VROM, G-VLIP, G-VROY) being leased.
For many years from the airlines foundation in 1984 to the early 2000’s, the 747 was the workhorse for the airline. Initially the fleet consisted of 7 -200 variants and a single -100 until 1994 when the first -400, G-VFAB christened Lady Penelope, arrived to initially operate the London Gatwick – Orlando route. Shortly after, it was moved to London Heathrow and between then and the turn of the century a further 5 (G-VHOT, G-VBIG, G-VAST, G-VTOP, G-VXLG) were delivered to the airline to operate along side additional 747-200’s and Airbus A340-300’s. By the year 2000, the airline was looking for second hand 747-400’s to use on its leisure routes from London Gatwick. The airline initially held talks with British Airways to acquire a few of theirs, but they weren’t deemed suitable due to the fact they had Rolls Royce engines – Virgin’s current 747’s were powered by General Electric. As luck would have it, Italian airline Alitalia cancelled their order for 5 747-400’s at the last minute, instead opting for the Boeing 777, so Virgin snapped these five up to replace their original 747-200’s that were now being used from London Gatwick. At their peak, there were 13 747-400’s in service however these days only eight remain:
- G-VBIG Tinker Belle ( delivered 1996)
- G-VAST Ladybird (1997)
- G-VXLG Ruby Tuesday (1998)
- G-VROS English Rose / Forever Young (2001)*
- G-VGAL Jersey Girl (2001)*
- G-VROM Barbarella (2001)*
- G-VLIP Hot Lips (2001)*
- G-VROY Pretty Woman (2001)*
*Part of the cancelled Alitalia order, potentially to leave the fleet by the end of 2019.
As mentioned, this article is pure speculation on my part – I have no contacts at the airline so I’m merely reporting on what I’ve found. I could just be a case of the dummy bookings I tried to make just happen to have not been operated by the 747 on the random dates I selected. However, the operations have to start winding down at some point…