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19 November 2012

Virgin announces new domestic flights

Where's the fabled capacity squeeze?

By Alex Hern

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:

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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.