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 the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.