Virgin announces new domestic flights

Where's the fabled capacity squeeze?

Richard Branson's Virgin Atlantic will today unveil plans to break into the short-haul market after winning the bidding for 12 pairs of slots at Heathrow.

Those slots will allow it to start flights to Scotland, with regular daily services from Aberdeen and Edinburgh to London. They will being in March, along with the airline's flights between Heathrow and Manchester.

Ridgway, the company's chief executive, told the Financial Times that:

We have fought hard for the right to fly short haul and take a strong challenge to British Airways within these shores.

Just last month, Richard Branson, chairman of Virgin Group, which controls Virgin Atlantic, launched a public campaign for more slots at Heathrow. But the campaign was predicated on Branson's desire, not for flights to Manchester and Edinburgh, but for flights to Hyderabad, Bangalore and Goa. The Guardian's Gwyn Topham wrote, in October:

Virgin Atlantic is considering a break with its go-it-alone history by joining an airline alliance, Sir Richard Branson said as he launched Virgin's new route to Mumbai with a pledge to expand to three more Indian destinations if he can win slots at Heathrow.

Virgin said its investment in India would pass £300m with its two newest A330 aircraft now operating the Delhi and Mumbai routes. Branson said he was also looking at direct Hyderabad, Bangalore and Goa services from Heathrow, although the chances of winning scarce slots in the immediate future seemed slim.

He said finding slots would be tough but "we're going to start campaigning". It would be "part of our campaign for an extra runway to be built at Heathrow", he added.

The fault here does not really lie with Virgin. The extra slots that they picked up in the auction have to be used on the same routes that BMI, the company which used to fly them, operated. If Virgin want to fly more planes to India, then they have to get different rights which allow them more long-haul trips.

Nevertheless, the news puts a different spin on the standard claim that Britain generally – and London specifically, and Heathrow even more specifically – needs greater airport capacity to fly more planes to emerging markets. The problem doesn't seem to be lack of space in the country's airports, but terrible, centralised and backward-looking allocation of that space.

As Zac Goldsmith wrote for this magazine in September:

We need to encourage a shift from air to rail wherever possible. Every week, there are 78 flights to Brussels, 94 to Manchester, 37 to Newcastle, and 95 to Paris. All of these, and many others, can be reached easily by train. With a better high speed rail network, they will be easier still.

Or, as I wrote the month before:

If we want to have more capacity, one really easy thing to do is stop flying from London to bloody Manchester.

Richard Branson dances in India, because he is Richard Branson and he will do what he wants. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.