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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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.